I recently finished my review of Brad Pitt in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" for an upcoming issue of The American Conservative. So, here's my first ever review for UPI from February 2001: "The Mexican" starring Brad and Julia Roberts. Like a number of my 2001 reviews of obscure movies, this hasn't been available online for years, so that vaguely aching cavity in your soul can now be filled. Or, at least, you can read far enough into it to answer the question "Which one is playing a Mexican?"
Julia Roberts is currently the most bankable star in
and Brad Pitt is number seven, according to researcher James Ulmer's "Hot List." So, a movie pairing them can't go wrong. Right? Hollywood
DreamWorks' "The Mexican" (rated R for bad language and some violence) has a certain preposterous charm. Set your expectations low enough and you might well find it amusing. Be forewarned, though, that it is not so much a "Brad's Back and Julia's Got Him!" extravaganza as two modestly budgeted mini-movies. The two giga-stars play a live-in couple whose wobbly romance requires constant group therapy sessions. A complicated plot about gangsters, however, limits their time on-screen together to just the beginning and end of the film. They share one kiss, but most of their few scenes with each other consist of Roberts lambasting Pitt for his incompetence and insensitivity to her many needs.
Pitt's half of the movie consists of him bumbling about the dusty Mexican countryside trying to retrieve for his crime lord boss a legendary handmade pistol called "The Mexican." It's reminiscent of the Steve Martin-Chevy Chase-Martin Short comedy "Three Amigos." Only not as funny. And with a less logical plot. Still, there are at least as many of everybody's favorite Mexican movie stereotypes: burros, banditos, crooked federales, gila monsters, and a drunken fiesta with peons firing their guns in the air. "The Mexican," like so many "edgy" indie-style movies of the post-Tarantino era, climaxes with all the characters holding guns on each other in a Mexican Standoff.
Meanwhile, Roberts is off in her own little movie on the road to
. Her half is a sort of cross between "Pulp Fiction" and the upcoming "Bridget Jones" comedy about thirtyish single women who read too many self-help books about relationships. A hired killer kidnaps Roberts in order to hold her hostage. He wants to make sure Pitt doesn't run off with the valuable pistol. Within an hour of her being dragged screaming from a shopping mall food court, however, she and her abductor are happily chattering about why men are so selfish. Las Vegas
James Gandolfini, star of "The Sopranos," takes on the John Travolta role as the hefty hit man with the heart of gold. Gandolfini plays the same surprisingly introspective professional murderer as he does on his HBO hit. Only, here he is supposed to be gay.
Granted, the notion of a gay Mafia gunman is pretty stupid, but it's no more knuckleheaded than the rest of the plot. The real problem with making Gandolfini gay, though, is that it drains all sexual tension from his many scenes with Roberts.
Both Pitt and Roberts took huge pay cuts to star in this $35 million dollar film. It's not clear what attracted them. Scriptwriter J.H. Wyman delivers a lot of smiles but few big laughs. Director Gore Verbinski, whose only previous credit was the kid's movie "Mouse Hunt," is competent enough, although he lets this piece of fluff run twenty minutes too long. Yet, even within the genre of flippant crime capers, "The Mexican" is more forgettable than even Pitt's last movie, Guy Ritchie's "Snatch."
Strangely enough, Verbinski repaid his leading lady's financial sacrifice by not covering up her worsening cosmetic flaws. In "The Mexican," Roberts looks every one of her 33 years.
Roberts' reputation as a tremendous beauty has always been somewhat puzzling, since she closely resembles her big brother Eric Roberts. In awe of his acting talent,
kept casting Eric in high profile movies in the mid-Eighties. Yet, they kept finding that audiences just couldn't stand the sight of him. His odd facial structure eventually exiled him to straight-to-video projects. Hollywood
Julia was fortunate to become a hugely popular leading lady at age 22 in "Pretty Woman." At that age, her youth and vivacity compensated for her less than classic features. Her remarkably wide mouth merely made her look more human and friendly than other screen goddesses.
Unfortunately, her face is unlikely to age as well as, say, Catherine Deneuve's. So, Roberts might have taken on this role as Pitt's nagging girlfriend as a quickie practice session. She'll have to play a lot more of this kind of character lead role as her beauty fades.
In contrast to Roberts, who has gotten as much as anyone could have hoped from her looks and talent, Pitt is one of
's great underachievers. Despite his typical $20 million salary, he hasn't starred in a $100 domestic grossing hit since "Se7en" in 1995. He looks like the young Robert Redford. Yet, Pitt often chooses roles more suited for Steve Buscemi, the famously homely character actor from " Hollywood ." Fargo
In "Snatch," Pitt excelled in a supporting role as a brown-haired bare-knuckle boxer with an incomprehensible Irish Traveller accent. In "The Mexican," he's back to playing a blonde-haired doofus of a leading man, but he can't rise above the blandness of the script.
Pitt seems stuck midway between the career strategies of his contemporaries Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp. Cruise carefully picks big budget matinee idol vehicles and huffs and puffs them into giant media events. Depp, in contrast, works constantly in oddball character lead roles, often for the benignly twisted director Tim Burton. Some of Depp's movies disappear instantly. A few of his gambles, though, such as the wonderful "Ed Wood," turn out memorably.
At age 37, it's hardly too late for Pitt to make more use of his many gifts. First, though, he has to decide what he wants to be when he grows up.