Despite its bold embrace of arty pretension and its near-complete lack of action, By the Sea is an honorable attempt to plumb something important about the human experience. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie (or Jolie Pitt, as she now bills herself), the movie examines three stages of married love: the carnal enthusiasm at the beginning, the middle-aged slump, and the final severing by life's mortal limit. The picture isn't boring, exactly—well, not entirely. But its emotional torpor—its wandering procession of gazes and sighs and glum murmurings – unhappily recalls old-school art-house bafflers like Last Year at Marienbad and some of the more inscrutable Antonioni films. This might not be many people's idea of a good time. It might not be anybody's. (The movie is opening in only three cities.)
The period is the mid-1970s. A long-married couple, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie—let's continue calling her that), have come to a seaside hotel in the South of France to tend their fraying union under the Mediterranean sun. They're deep in some sort of existential crisis (revealed at the end, but easily guessed early on). Roland, a blocked writer, is frustrated by Vanessa's unyielding depression ("You resist happiness," he actually tells her), and he spends the balmy days drinking gin in a little café owned by Michel (Niels Arestrup), an avuncular Frenchman whose beloved wife of many years has recently died. Outside, a local fisherman is repeatedly seen returning to shore with an empty hold, sailing the sea of metaphor.
Back at the hotel, Vanessa devotes herself to pills and cigarettes and the consolations of heavy makeup and dramatic sunhats. Then she discovers a peephole in the wall that allows her to observe a passionate couple in the room next door, a pair of newlyweds named Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud). Eventually, Roland joins Vanessa in spying on these erotically demonstrative neighbors (which is mildly funny), and soon she initiates a manipulative relationship with them.
Pitt, with his brushy little mustache and earnest fedora, holds the movie together to some extent—his charisma is unconquerable. And Jolie gives a fearless performance as a woman wasting away both inside and out. She's alarmingly stick-thin and drawn-looking here; and although she underwent a preemptive double mastectomy two years ago, she bravely negotiates a couple of topless scenes—very carefully shot—that are a tribute to the wonder of reconstructive surgery.
This is the third picture Jolie has directed (after In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken), and her filmmaking talent remains clear. But By the Sea is a challenge to sit through—in standard kinetic terms, there's virtually nothing happening in it. By the time it's over, you can't imagine how it would have gotten made without the participation of its powerful, A-list stars.
In the race to make the greatest number of crappy movies, Nicolas Cage has been Robert De Niro's strongest competition. The faceoff continues, but now, with Heist, De Niro pulls way ahead. Playing the mild-mannered but murderous owner of a riverboat casino in Mobile, Alabama—yes, that's who he's playing—De Niro's sole achievement here is in keeping a straight face while an uber-idiotic story collapses all around him.
De Niro's character, "the Pope"—yes, that's his name—is unsympathetic when one of his casino employees, Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), hits him up for a $300,000 loan to save the life of Vaughn's little daughter (Elizabeth Windley), who's dying in a local hospital. Rebuffed and desperate, Vaughn agrees to join another employee, Cox (Dave Bautista), in a scheme to rip off the casino for several million dollars. The heist goes wrong, of course, and Vaughn and Cox and two low-life associates make their escape in the traditional hail of gunfire. They commandeer a municipal bus, terrify the passengers (one of whom is inexplicably wearing a beaver costume), and order the driver to hightail it for Texas, where a getaway plane awaits to fly them to Mexico. (Cox has arranged this deal by offering the pilot a chance to "fuck my sister." I'd like to say you can't make this stuff up, but screenwriters Stephen Cyrus Sepher and Max Adams unfortunately have.)
Onboard the bus, Cox froths and bellows while Vaughn slowly wins over the passengers with displays of his essentially gentle nature. (He's a onetime war hero.) Meanwhile, they're all being chased by a SWAT team led by corrupt cop Marconi (hammy Mark-Paul Gosselaar, giving the movie's worst performance), as well as the Pope's steely enforcer, Dog (Morris Chestnut, giving its best). Also in pursuit is a police officer named Kris (Gina Carano), whose dedication to her job is evidently minimal, since she easily forges a bond with Vaughn via cellphone. ("Let me help you with your problems," she says.)
Throughout all of the by-the-numbers highway chase action, director Scott Mann occasionally cuts away to show us De Niro fiddling with a vaping device he has purchased to help kick his cigarette habit. Whatever. He also delivers lines like, "From the moment we're born, we're on a one-way trip to obsolescence." Again, whatever.
Many things happen on the way to Texas, not one of them less than ridiculous—least of all the picture's preposterous happy conclusion. Toward the end, Vaughn's little girl tells him, "I'm proud of you, Dad," and we realize that she's the only imaginable person who could possibly buy into this movie.