October 2, 2007

Brad's Back and Julia's Got Him in "The Mexican"

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 Hollywood and Brad Pitt is number seven, according to researcher James Ulmer's "Hot List." So, a movie pairing them can't go wrong. Right?


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 Las Vegas. 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.

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, Hollywood 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.

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 Hollywood'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 "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.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


elfin magic said...

Sailer, you never fail to be much more complimentary and detailed about the good looks of male actors than females with the exception of Eric Roberts. I have often wondered about this... I've also noted that your generic ginger hair color is no match for Julia's ravishing red. I presume this is the problem with Eric as well.

As for Julia, it's too bad she isn't cute & petite like me. Even with non-classic features, I'll be cute as a button when I'm 70. Any jerks who decide to be uncivil to me will certainly be cast from the community like the curs they are.

Anonymous said...

Brad Pitt's wikipedia entry says he's 43, not 37.

fwood1 said...

"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."

Like Steve, I never thought Julia Roberts was attractive, but what's the matter with 33 year old women?! They're hot!

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 7:18 PM

The film (and review) are from 2001.

Six years ago.

37 + 6 = ?

James Kabala said...

Anonymous: The review was written in 2001, when he was 37.

It's fun to read old movie reviews (or old articles about anything) and see how their predictions turn out right or wrong. Who could have guessed that Johnny Depp would hit mainstream leading-man status, much less that he would do it by playing a Disney pirate?

wigwam said...

commenter elfin magic is amusing.....but not as amusing as old movie reviews. after ALL the hype has blown over and the "best picture of the year" nominees morph into 2 star timefilling cable fodder.....it is in NOT letting sleeping dogs lie that the reviewer really puts their rep on the line. you have guts, mr sailor. these old reviews consistently show you sugarcoating the s*** coming out of hollywood....

Sideways said...

Unfortunately, her face is unlikely to age as well as, say, Catherine Deneuve's.

You certainly nailed that.

Alex said...

"Who could have guessed that Johnny Depp would hit mainstream leading-man status, much less that he would do it by playing a Disney pirate?"

And directed by the director of "The Mexican!"

Evil Sandmich said...

I'm impressed you were able to watch the whole thing, I couldn't sit through more than 15 minutes of that abomination.

Steve Sailer said...

"Who could have guessed that Johnny Depp would hit mainstream leading-man status, much less that he would do it by playing a Disney pirate?"

I sure didn't. In my review of Pirates of the Caribbean, I wrote:

""Pirates" is inspired by an amusement park ride. A very good amusement park ride indeed, but not something that the world has been crying out to see on screen."

sneak peeks said...

Steve's review was dead-on, even the Eric Roberts crack, though I wish I'd seen it before I watched this film on HBO (less than 10 mo. after theatrical IIRC). Frankly I wasn't really sure I'd ever seen it at all, till I followed the link for this review. Gay hitmen indeed. Funny to reflect on how they all went on to bigger things; not so bad for the son of a mere physicist at Oak Ridge Nat'l Labs, I can't even imagine how he'll screw up "Clue" though