Movie Review: “Allied” is a slick, empty “Casablanca” that flunks chemistry

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As crisp as every crease on Brad Pitt’s perfectly-pressed period picture pants, as slick and shiny as any classic from the Hollywood “Dream Factory,” “Allied” is a World War II romance that lacks the spark — any spark — of romance, lust or life.

The settings are pristine, and feel about as real and lived in as “The Polar Express.” The performances have a stiffness that borders on motion-capture animation.

Director Robert Zemeckis brings us a “Casablanca” without a scrap of heart, an “English Patient” with all of the splendor, and none of the heat.

Brad Pitt stars as Max Vatan, a Canadian pilot and spy sent to Casablanca to assassinate a high ranking German. Marion Cotillard is the French Resistance heroine assigned to set up the killing and play his wife in the process.

And from the first scene — Vatan parachuting into the unspoiled vistas of the Moroccan desert — Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,””Cast Away” and “The Polar Express”) sets out to scrub every hint of realism out of this movie world.

Vatan is spotless, even after dropping into the middle of the desert. The vintage French car that picks him up in the middle of that desert? Almost as spotless. The dirt streets where the over-dressed and well-heeled sit outdoors to take their coffee (“Cream, sugar, sand, sir?”)? The cleanest damned dirty streets you’ll ever see. The dry cleaning in Casablanca must be formidable.

And as Max, renamed “Maurice,” and his “wife” Marianne show off their extensive wardrobes in the swank neon and art deco world Zemeckis envisions mid-war Casablanca to be, Max questions his contact and how far she’s immersed herself in this Vichy French outpost where Rick and Isla rekindled their love over 70 years ago.

“Do they trust you?” Max wants to know.

“I keep the emotions real,” Marianne purrs. “That’s how it works.”

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The Casablanca smart set have no more dolled up for the Big Ball — in dresses, tuxes and the showiest German Army uniforms this side of “Springtime for Hitler” — than Max and Marianne have shot it all to pieces, pulling off their improbable assassination.

And since they’ve had joyless sex in a sandstorm and pretended to be married in all the conspicuous ways — “We’re married, why should we talk?” — he proposes and they escape to Britain. They marry, have a child and the war drags on towards D-Day.

Until the powers that be cast a suspicious eye at the Resistance Heroine and Max finds himself frantically trying to clear her name or at least find out if he’s been duped.

The leads never, for one moment, suggest passion or even attraction. That old Hollywood joke about how to tell when the actors are sleeping together (they have no on-screen chemistry) has inspired all manner of gossip about these two. But then, Zemeckis never gave them a chance.

Zemeckis, working from an airless Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”) script, is content to riff on classic movie moments, including a famous song and the order to “play it” from “Casablanca.”

Jared Harris is the cliched stiff-upper-lip commanding officer hired to mutter the curse “You’re a bloody fool.” Simon McBurney is the spy-catcher who drips venom as he stares at the incriminating report that is his prop of intimidation, along with a desk lamp that always shows up in interrogation scenes in the movies.

Lizzy Caplan has a glorified cameo as Max’s lesbian sister-in-uniform, adding to the sense that Zemeckis was just trying to modernize yet sanitize the classic WWII romance formula. Cigarettes are omnipresent, and whisky and f-bombs, along with the occasional Brit pip-pipping and muttering “Goodness gracious.” Shoot-outs are almost as bloodless as they were in Bogart’s day.

The early scenes are worth our interest, but the unreality crosses the line into laugh-out-loud melodrama as Max goes to greater and greater lengths to get his proof, to confirm Marianne’s identity.

But truthfully, reality never took hold, from the parachute drop that doesn’t wrinkle Pitt’s perfect pants to the ever-so-tasteful string quartet playing “Deutschland Uber Alles” at the Big Ball (Seriously? Like these Nazis wouldn’t have set down their cocktails and clicked their heels to attention over that?) to the perfectly-executed shoot-outs and perfectly timed get-aways.

“Allied” is a war romance that strips all the romance and much of the blood out of that war, and besides that tells a story that beggars belief.

And Pitt, hair dyed, French accent polished and uniformed to perfection, has never been so stiff. Watching him lean on a desk and cross his legs, as if he’s never attempted such a feat before, is a perfectly uncreased comical agony and emblematic of the movie surrounding him.

1half-star
MPAA Rating:R for violence, some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use

Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney

Credits:Directed by Robert Zemeckis, script by Steven Knight. A Paramount release.

Running time: 2:04

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