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Movie Review

Roberts and Pitt Take Dead Aim

The two stars may be the heavy hitters, but James Gandolfini provides what firepower there is in 'The Mexican.'

March 02, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"The Mexican" is all about misdirection. It is named not after a person but a pistol. Its best performance is not given by its pair of leads--who just happen to be two of the biggest stars going--but by someone else. And it wants ever so desperately to be successfully hip and offbeat, but it can't manage to make it happen.

A violence-prone screwball farce accurately (albeit a bit surreally) described by its director as "a romantic comedy . . . but with a little bit of Sam Peckinpah"), "The Mexican" has its eye on being a jaunty, picaresque adventure, kind of a updated version of those off-the-cuff road movies of some years back.

And though it's in theory heartening to see together-for-the-first-time stars like Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt taking a shot at what was conceived of by writer J.H. Wyman as a much smaller picture, neither they nor director Gore Verbinski can bring this off. If "The Mexican" proves anything, it's that eccentric features need a particularly delicate touch to be successful. With a film like this, how close you come doesn't matter: Off by a little is as debilitating as off by a lot.

The reasons behind "The Mexican's" underwhelming nature are hard to pinpoint. Is it because the film's body count is higher than Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant ever had to deal with? Because director Verbinski, a commercial veteran whose debut feature was the very commercial "Mouse Hunt," doesn't have the sensibility for this, no matter how much he'd like to? Is it because Wyman's script at times resembles the deflated football that's one of its elements? All that's for sure is that much as we pull for this film to go somewhere, to rise to another level, it stubbornly won't. Or can't.

On the other hand, Roberts and Pitt look happy to be working together, so much so that you really don't want to point out that they're often trying too hard and that they spend much less time sharing the screen than the film's campaign might lead you to expect.

"The Mexican" does begin with Jerry Welbach (Pitt) and Samantha "Sam" Barzel (Roberts) waking up in the same bed. Sam looks happy, but Jerry, who has a more accurate idea of what the coming day will bring, does not.

Jerry, to put it nicely, is a genial flop, someone with the gift of messing up the simplest assignments and then, as Sam puts it, trying to "Forrest Gump your way through things." This, to be sure, is not the best career strategy when you work as a bagman for an imprisoned crime lord and his impatient major-domo Nayman (Bob Balaban).

Sam is insistent that Jerry quit the business, and Jerry has agreed. In principle. But Nayman has one last job for him, one that involves going down to Mexico and picking up the Mexican, a celebrated antique pistol the boss has a hankering for even though it comes complete with a burdensome curse.

Given that should Jerry refuse he will be immediately killed, it's more irritating than fascinating that Sam wildly overreacts, throwing Jerry's clothes off the balcony (now that's a first) and instigating a raging argument structured around buzzwords like "needs," "acknowledgment" and "time-outs." It's too easy to overdo these kinds of hysterics, and that's what happens here.

It's also at this early stage that the film splits, with Jerry going down to Mexico to find the pistol and hear varying versions of its history (all put on screen silent-film-style) and Sam headed off to Las Vegas to read "Men Who Can't Love" and begin, or so she thinks, a life without her beau.

But Jerry's nefarious associations are not so easily shrugged off. Sam is soon flabbergasted to find herself in the power of a goateed, consummately professional hit man named Leroy, who tries to calm down his hysterical charge (good luck) by telling her, "I'm just here to regulate funkiness."

Leroy is played by James Gandolfini, sometimes known as Tony Soprano, and his is easily the film's most memorable performance. It is work based on more than the inherent interest we have in a violent character whose shrewdness about relationships turns him into a kind of unlicensed psychologist. Gandolfini brings a dignity and depth to Leroy, a substance that keeps him from descending into the kind of shtick that hampers "The Mexican" as it does so many modern screwball attempts.

As Jerry and Sam lurch from crisis to over-plotted crisis, one of "The Mexican's" lines sums up its profile: "All I got is my wallet and an attitude." The wallet paid for Roberts and Pitt, but the attitude wears thin awfully fast.

*

* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: a sizable body count.

'The Mexican'

Brad Pitt: Jerry

Julia Roberts: Samantha

James Gandolfini:Leroy

J.K. Simmons: Ted

Bob Balaban: Nayman

*

DreamWorks Pictures presents in association with Newmarket, a Lawrence Bender production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Gore Verbinski. Producers Lawrence Bender, John Baldecchi. Executive producers William Tyrer, Chris J. Ball, Aaron Ryder, J.H. Wyman. Screenwriter J.H. Wyman. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Editor Craig Wood. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Cecilia Montiel. Art director Michael Atwell. Set Decorator Robert Greenfield. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

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