What Is Angelina Jolie Chasing With The Dull, Self-Serious 'By The Sea'?

The arty drama opens in limited release this weekend.

In the opening moments of "By the Sea," the Pitts cruise down a windy European road, Brad driving a silver convertible and Angelina perched beside him in shades and a wide-brim hat, looking like she just earned a master's degree in Glamorous Magazine Spreads. We are keenly aware that Angelina Jolie Pitt collected her doctorate in that discipline years ago. It's time, now, for her to convince us she is worthy of a bachelor's in directing because, after 2011's blunt "In the Land of Blood and Honey" and 2014's conventional "Unbroken," Jolie needs to make something that confirms she has the wherewithal to helm good movies. "By the Sea" isn't it. 

Within the veneer of the glossy seaside French town in which "By the Sea" takes place, there is something admirable about the film. Even though it stars one of the most famous couples in the Western Hemisphere, Jolie Pitt, who also wrote the script, has made the least mainstream studio film she could about an imploding 1970s marriage. It's a slow, art-house melodrama, and on its face, it's great to see A-listers devote time to an ambiance not often seen in contemporary American cinema. In fact, I see it as a nice shift away from the prestige-war-flick trappings to which "Unbroken" fell victim. But in practice, "By the Sea" seems painfully aware of its mission: to convince us to take Angelina Jolie Pitt seriously as a writer and director.

It's there that the movie, and its muted marketing, falls apart. Perhaps the Oscar-winning actress feels we've undervalued her talents as an auteur, but there's no justification there: "By the Sea" was filmed in fall 2014, before "Unbroken" opened to lukewarm reviews and was subsequently shut out of every major Oscar category. Instead, this feels like an ineffective exercise in the voyeuristic interpretations we impart upon others' lives. Does the central couple's turmoil echo that of the Pitts, one may logically ask. 

Granted, Brangelina boast six children and no obvious signs of relationship deterioration, but Jolie Pitt seems too conscious of the question, and her avoidance of much actual plot dulls down the movie. When Roland (Pitt), a hard-drinking novelist battling writer's block, and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), his pill-popping, despondent ex-dancer wife, check into their waterfront hostel, they discover a hole in the wall that allows them to peer at their newlywed neighbors (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud), whose spirited sex life makes Vanessa and Roland's connection appear even more deadened than it already was. But they are enlivened by the ability to spy because the act of doing so recalls scenes from their younger days. Is that couple the Pitt stand-ins, incessantly watched, as if fame is the world's collective peephole? Probably not, but it doesn't matter because the twist, so to speak, that reveals the origins of Vanessa and Roland's devolution -- which I won't reveal here -- is so predictable and overwrought that it's hard to care about much of anything.

But Jolie Pitt, who has called this a "personal project," has to know she's too famous for us not to pose such questions. It's by no means inevitable that she would dramatize her own experiences, so I ask: Why make such a boring movie when there are so many interesting stories about strained relationships worth telling?

These interrogations were fun, or at least intriguing, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were making movies together, or when Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise made "Eyes Wide Shut." But as much as "By the Sea" may long to be "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," it has none of that movie's bite. Here, such questions are devoid of appeal because this is a story about love and sex whose pouty pseudo-characters make us want to think about anything but. Vanessa stares at the rippling sea in blatant suicide metaphors, and Roland spends significant time at the hostel's bar, partly to write and partly to escape the numbing presence of his pained wife. When their paths cross, it's all angst and little insight into a history that makes these two people worth two hours of our time. Jolie Pitt's luscious cheekbones, shot in frequent close-ups, cannot carry a movie alone.

The rub of it all is that Jolie Pitt clearly wants an Oscar nod for her directing efforts. The drama premiered at the year's final awards-centric festival, last week's AFI Fest in Los Angeles, and the marketing -- what little of it exists -- distinctly conjures up the '70s European art pictures that inspired the film. (Harry Nilsson's soothing "Perfect Day" scores the trailers precisely because its lyrics are in opposition to the essence of "By the Sea.") Reports have indicated the film will open in a tiny limited release with no plans to go nationwide, despite the fact that it cost almost $30 million to make. On top of it all, the Pitts have given few promotional interviews and don't seem to have an elevated media presence at the moment. Do people even know about this movie? Will it make any money? For a project with so much star power ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith" made $478 million worldwide!), that silence is the strangest bit of it all. Universal Pictures is distributing the film -- this isn't an independent underdog without the purse strings to get off the ground. What is Jolie Pitt's game here, if not to establish the effort as a prestige flick (read: Oscar contender)? She amped up the seriousness of the story in an apparent attempt to emphasize its importance, but to what effect? The movie is too arty for Oscar voters, who haven't included Jolie Pitt in their nominations since 2008's "Changeling."

I've resisted calling "By the Sea" a vanity project, a term many critics have used in their reviews, because Jolie Pitt certainly doesn't need to cater to any market segment, mainstream or otherwise, in order to justify the type of story she chooses to tell. But she does need to craft a tale worth telling, and the stilted characterization and wooden performances in "By the Sea" don't accomplish that. At least it looks glamorous.


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