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‘By the Sea': Angelina Jolie Pitt has filmmaking weaknesses, but they don’t involve directing

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in ‘By the Sea’

Brad Pitt, left, as Roland and Angelina Jolie Pitt as Vanessa in a scene from the film “By the Sea.”

(Merrick Morton / Universal Pictures)

Some stars dip their toe into directing waters. Others dive in like Greg Louganis.

Angelina Jolie Pitt has in recent years turned into the latter. The star has worked on four live-action movies since 2011, and three of them have been as a director. Four years ago came the Balkan drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” while last year brought World War II memoir adaptation “Unbroken.”

On Thursday at AFI Fest, Jolie Pitt unveiled the last of this trifecta, “By the Sea,” a romantic drama she wrote, directed, produced and starred in opposite husband Brad Pitt, who also produced.

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The 1970s-set marital drama, which Universal will release next week, centers on retired dancer Vanessa and blocked-writer Roland as they take a trip to the Maltese Coast hoping to recharge their romance. The two are sinking as much into dependency as codependency (she’s a pill popper, he’s a drinker). Neither of them seems able to get out of their rut.

That is, until midway through, when the couple begin spying on the happy newlyweds in the next hotel room via a hole in their shared wall. Though Vanessa and Roland are animated by envy, the through-the-peephole viewing becomes a kind of unspoken reminder of what once was, and the bonding it offers gives them a chance to get it back (maybe).

After the screening in Hollywood on Thursday night, the snark was flying, and understandably so. The movie is a heavy-lidded affair, channeling the spirit of European melodrama that one doesn’t see much these days, while also paying homage to some other midcentury touchstones; the idea of an ennabling couple heading to the coast to lament their not-exactly-terrible lives could also be described as an attempt to update a certain Blake Edwards movie, a kind of “Days of Whine and Roses.”

It’s also impossible to detach the autobiography from the whole enterprise. And as much as there’s something reassuring to imagine that a celebrity couple fights and struggles just like the rest of us, their high-class problems make it hard to muster the identification a story like this requires.

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Still, at least some of the backlash seems attributable to that same roman a clef fact. Jolie Pitt is so front-and-center, in every way, that the film almost dares pundits to take shots. You could easily imagine a director of unknown name and provenance making essentially the same movie, with different faces, and earning a much more measured response.

The truth is that for all the backlash Jolie Pitt has drawn for her movies, her directing chops are solid. They weren’t bad in “Blood and Honey,” they were respectable in “Unbroken” and they’re better here. Sure, there are some questionable moments (some quick-cut flashbacks won’t be studied in any AFI classes), but as directorial efforts go, whether it’s long shots of the coast or close-ups of the couple’s pained faces, it’s a perfectly worthy affair.

The real issue lie with the script. A tortured-couple tale is a dicey choice, given how often it’s been done and how easily it lends itself to cliche and/or histrionics. But there were still ways to redeem it -- for instance, with some surprise or some comedy. The movie comes alive in the moments when Vanessa and Roland are peering through the Tom & Jerry hole in the baseboards, the two of them sitting on the floor, both aware of the ridiculousness of their actions and needing it just the same. Yet there’s not nearly enough of those scenes, and what there is doesn’t get developed in a satisfying way, as a more polished screenwriter would certainly have known to do.

It’s in this on-the-page way that the movie suffers, as did, come to think of it, “Blood and Honey” and “Unbroken” (the latter of which Jolie Pitt didn’t write but did signed on to direct despite the script not including arguably the most interesting aspects of its hero’s story.)

Jolie Pitt is one of the most famous celebrities in the world. And her filmmaking can suffer from one of the most common maladies of really famous celebrities in the world making movies: a lack of outside oxygen, or opinions. The celebrity card cuts two ways: Jolie Pitt has the clout to get a movie like this greenlit, something few can do. But because she has all that clout, she doesn’t need to allow other experienced voices into the room (who would?).

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Yet those voices are necessary. Some of them would have advised some fundamental script revisions. Many would have offered tonal shifts, or at least something to scramble the movie’s dramatic key.

Jolie Pitt has said she’s not good at comedy. Judging by this movie’s voyeur scenes, she might be that she’s better at them than she realizes.

As the star has embarked on this new phase, she’s now made three movies in four years. One is about a gruesome emotional war, and the other two are about wars of the real kind. You can’t help admiring her seriousness of purpose. And you can only wish she was a little less serious.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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TRAILER: ‘By The Sea’

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