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Los Gringos Locos

Julia Roberts's and Brad Pitt's performances go straight south in The Mexican

Leave it to Hollywood to sell us the insipid romance of a thoroughly irritating white couple as the solution to an archaic Latin American mystery.

As pure bang-up adventure, The Mexican is certainly more user-friendly than childish junk like The Way of the Gun, but the attempt to weave adult relationship psychobabble and cultural significance into the action rings utterly false, resulting in whiny gringos south of the border. Along the road to the explosive conclusion and requisite Gene Hackman cameo, there are a few chuckles and clever twists, but on the way out, the aftertaste is less merry mayhem than manic marketing.

Then again, does anyone really expect more from a product like this? Although the script by J.H. Wyman (Pale Saints) initially was shopped around as a lower-budget project to feature relative unknowns, once Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts signed on -- for their first feature together -- it must have sounded like the ka-ching! heard round the world. What's odd is that the stars spend most of the movie apart, as dictated by the script, but also perhaps to accommodate their busy schedules. Add in a dismaying dearth of romantic chemistry -- during their brief scenes together, the two actually seem afraid to touch each other -- and we end up with a Frankenstein's monster of a movie: lots of interesting pieces cobbled together with all the stitches showing.

Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt: They won't exactly remind you of Hepburn and Tracy, or even Chase and Hawn.
Merrick Morton
Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt: They won't exactly remind you of Hepburn and Tracy, or even Chase and Hawn.

The basic gist is that Jerry (Pitt) and Samantha (Roberts) are just not getting along, the poor dears. Shacked up in a crass L.A. apartment, they're at odds because she wants him to stop being from Mars, and he wants her to drop the Venusian nagging. After approximately one shooting day of film production, their rift is deepened, as Jerry is summoned by mob boss Bernie (Bob Balaban) to fly to Mexico to retrieve the titular "Mexican," an ornate antique pistol strongly coveted by an imprisoned American kingpin. This crime stuff doesn't wash with Samantha's sensibilities ("Okay, Jerry, I want you to acknowledge that my needs mean nothing to you, and that you are a selfish prick and a liar"), so as he jets south, she heads off to Vegas to start a new life as an obscure waitress no one would accidentally mistake for Julia Roberts.

The movie becomes much more engaging once it finds its gears, as Jerry revs his rental El Camino into a rugged town to find Beck (David Krumholtz), who's guarding the pistol. After his tequila-splashed meeting with the kid -- who turns out to resemble an unholy spawn of Hunter S. Thompson and Steven Spielberg -- things go terribly awry for Jerry, who ends up stranded with blood on his hands. Broke and bereft in a foreign land (and reduced to asking passing farmers for "a lift in your trucko to the next towno!"), he calls for help in the form of a friendly mobster named Ted (J.K. Simmons), who generously agrees to fly down and help complete the mission. En route to their meeting, Jerry sorts through the set-dressing of muscle cars, crazy caballeros and -- adding a dash of charm -- a big vicious dog.

Meanwhile, we experience Samantha's made-to-order environs, which include a cute green VW Beetle, a colorfully disorienting road to Vegas and an obligatory gay sidekick. Rather swiftly, Samantha is saved from a sleek kidnapper (Sherman Augustus, of Virus and Ken Loach's upcoming Bread and Roses) by a much frumpier abductor named Leroy (James Gandolfini of The Sopranos), whose persnickety presence proves to be the film's saving grace. Defying all laws (especially probability), he shepherds her at gunpoint from lavatory to lavatory -- in a shopping mall, a gas station, a hotel, etc. -- until the two discover emotional common ground and eventually bond. But really, Roberts goes to the bathroom so many times the producers could have renamed the movie The Princess and the Pee.

Someone dies horribly and gratuitously every half hour or so, but director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt) employs sporadic doses of whimsy (as in the random placement of "The Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats) to temper the mortality. The final product is a schizophrenic beast indeed, especially where Leroy is concerned. One minute the thug is swooning and lamenting a cheesy one-night stand as the love of his life, and the next he turns murderously mean-spirited, proclaiming that "Kevlar is for pussies" (a disturbing notion in any context). Were it not for Gandolfini's deft touch, the material would have spun out of control altogether. As it stands, it's plausible as long as you don't think too much about it.

With Pitt and Roberts, it's another story. Although each gets a moment or two in the sun, they both seem to be distracted, merely phoning this one in. He pulls off a couple of tough-guy moments that remind one of Steve McQueen in his prime, and she gets to stumble through an amusing self-help soliloquy: "I need sunshine to grow … that's who I am! … and with the projection of … I have goals!" But once the dipstick duo are reunited and Pitt shudders, "Oh my God -- I'm lucky I didn't lose you three days ago," this critic could not help but instinctively check his watch. They mean well, but they're no Hepburn and Tracy, or even Chase and Hawn. And woe to the audience that there's nary a glimpse of these two jumping beans bumping jeans.

What the movie does manage is atmosphere, delivering a much more enticing portrait of Mexico than Traffic could summon (although it takes a few scenes to get over the shock that this is a movie without Benicio Del Toro in it). Both in the present day and in a series of flickering, sepia-toned flashbacks relating the pistol's accursed origin, Verbinski struts his stuff as a visual stylist (with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski), affording the project a rich sense of place. But only peel back the thin layers of romance, comedy and action, and The Mexican is revealed for what it is: an attempt at cinematic diplomacy, albeit a feeble one.

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