Allied, the new romantic spy thriller from Robert Zemeckis, looks pretty traditional on the surface: beautiful movie stars, beautiful locale, WWII story. But it’s actually quite a progressive, rule-breaking movie. Which rules? The Brad Pitt Rules. For a traditional movie star, Allied would be a perfect vehicle: save the girl (in this case, Marion Cotillard), save the world (in Casablanca, no less), and look good doing it. But Brad Pitt isn’t like other movie stars. He comes alive when his characters get stupid, stuff their faces, and project cool despite themselves; he thrives outside of romantic relationships, and more often than not, the less screen time he has, the better the movie. When he follows the Brad Pitt Rules, he makes good movies. When he breaks them … meet Joe Black.
Rule No. 1: A.B.E. (Always. Be. Eating.)
Always be eating. Eating is a disgusting spectator sport. For something we regularly do in front of others — often our loved ones — throwing food into holes in our face rarely looks cool. In fact, I would argue that the single greatest test of a movie star is whether or not they can eat nachos without looking like a hippopotamus bathing in melted cheese. By that logic, Brad Pitt is the only movie star. And miss me with the Kurt Russell–Death Proof jazz because that’s an advertisement for nachos, not Kurt Russell.
My colleague Amanda Dobbins really is the Doris Kearns Goodwin of this shit, and all I can do is build off her scholarship, but suffice to say: Brad Pitt will take down whatever you put in front of him. Popcorn, nachos, burgers, sunflower seeds, cotton candy, dumplings, pancakes. There’s a scene in Moneyball where Brad Pitt is trying to persuade Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brent Jennings to play Scott Hatteberg over Carlos Peña, and Pitt is just destroying fries, and it’s all Hoffman and Jennings can do to not die laughing at this animal. He’s so far Inside the Actor’s Studio he’s in the kitchen.
When Pitt eats, he is one of us. He is relatable. He is taking time out of being “Brad Pitt” to do something human on screen. Sure, it’s a crutch — a shortcut to say “I’m normal” — but it’s a great one.
Rule No. 2: Play Dumb
Look at this — and I say this with all due respect and as someone who has enjoyed every Brad Pitt movie except for Babel — fucking meathead. He is an activist, a philanthropist, and an architect; Brad Pitt is a bright guy. But he shouldn’t play one on screen. In the darkness of the movie theater, nobody cares about his stem-cell-research stance or how he feels about vaulted ceilings. The best Brad Pitt performances are characters who experience an intelligence heat check.
In Se7en he crams Cliff’s Notes on Dante’s Inferno; in True Romance he smokes out of a Honeybear bong and accidentally narcs on his friends; in Moneyball he is an ex-jock on a revenge mission against the scouts who led him astray in his life; in Snatch he is in a movie called Snatch; in Burn After Reading he is a total goober who thinks he understands the national security apparatus.
We don’t need Brad Pitt: United Nations Crisis Investigator. We need Brad Pitt: Are we sure this guy doesn’t try to put his pants on over his head? The only cases in which Brad Pitt characters are allowed to be smart are when they are (a) also incredibly weird, and (b) not clocking a ton of screen time. His character from The Big Short, Ben Rickert, is a genius, but openly talks about fertilizing his doomsday garden with wood ash and urine, and he’s in the movie for only about 10 minutes.
Rule No. 3: Come Off the Bench
One of our biggest movie stars is actually our best character actor. High-usage Pitt movies are fine, and can even be great. But sixth-man Pitt performances are uniformly awesome, even if the movies are just OK. Inglourious Basterds, Burn After Reading, The Counselor, and Snatch are the Mt. Rushmore of this rule (he’s distracting in 12 Years a Slave). Think about how hard it is to buy Tom Cruise appearing in anything less than every frame of a movie (with the exception of Magnolia); the inverse is true for Pitt. His wattage burns brighter the less often it’s used. And even when he’s got a lot of screen time in a movie, Pitt works best when playing the specter hanging over the movie, rather than the heart of it. This is the beauty of A River Runs Through It, where his performance is perfectly calibrated to what it should be: a memory of a person.
Rule No. 4: Avoid Love
I am going to keep it 1600 with you: Nobody cares about Brad Pitt as a love interest. What we do care about is his love life — it’s one of the most fascinating pop cultural tales of the century. There’s a difference. There’s also a difference between being a sex symbol and a love interest. His iconic, star-making turn in Thelma & Louise is sex-symbol behavior. But it’s not that romantic.
Chalk it up to his love life being a hall of mirrors for the last 20 years, but love stories are a waste of Pitt’s talents. He doesn’t know how to perform in them anyway. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he was better at aging backward than loving Cate Blanchett across time. His calling-card love story, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, still plays like a weird spectacle — and we know how that story ended.
The best on-screen romance Pitt has had is with Catherine Zeta-Jones in Ocean’s Twelve, but that’s not the real love story of the Ocean’s movies …
Rule No. 5: Get Buddies
How is there not a montage on YouTube called “Brad Pitt being your homie”? Has there been a better movie hang since Paul Newman? Sure, Pitt might get you in trouble from time to time …
But he’s never boring. The totemic Pitt performances are in movies about friendship, in one way or another: Se7en, Fight Club, Ocean’s Eleven, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Moneyball. He’s fine saving the world or taking Troy. He thrives in movies modeled after The Sting — partnered with a good foil (Morgan Freeman, Edward Norton, George Clooney, Jonah Hill), surrounded by friendly faces, riffing in rooms. Preferably while grabbing a bite to eat.