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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fair
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The Mexican
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When stars as big as Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts appear in a movie together, it's not just two astral bodies coming into alignment, it's a veritable Big Bang that could supply the state of California--Hollywood, anyway--with electric power for months to come. Unfortunately, The Mexican makes the ridiculous mistake of keeping these two apart for most of the movie, a strategy that paid off in Sleepless in Seattle, where (as we learned in You've Got Mail) there wasn't that much to look forward to in the way of chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Here, it just seems perverse--especially since, in their few scenes together, Pitt and Roberts get a nice little back-and-forth thing going. Were the superstars unable to mesh their schedules? Was the scriptwriter out of his mind? Does it really matter?

Turns out, J.H. Wyman wrote The Mexican with nobodies in mind. And Pitt and Roberts ain't exactly nobodies. What I can't decide, however, is whether the movie would be better or worse off without them. It's supposed to be a lark--a romantic comedy "with a little bit of Sam Peckinpah," according to director Gore Verbinski, whose previous effort, Mouse Hunt, left out the Sam Peckinpah, the romance and, as far as I'm concerned, the comedy. But Wyman's script, which contains every don't-drink-the-water clichà this side of the Frito Bandito, is a little thin, and it may have needed Pitt and Roberts' star power to flesh it out. Though their hair's a mess and they've been unflatteringly dressed, they both look great, of course. (That may be the definition of a star). And at least one of them gives a nice performance.

That would be Pitt, who plays Jerry, a bag man for the Mob. Though a nice enough guy, Jerry is, in a word, dumb. Or is he just so sweetly innocent that the rest of the world seems smart in comparison? Whatever it is, you should see him pull his gun on someone. It slips through his fingers, like a raw hot dog. Jerry is an accident machine, and lots of guys could have played him. But Pitt's scruffy-dog performance shows hidden reserves of gentle wackiness. (I like the way Jerry's thoughts always seem to arrive a few seconds after they're needed.) When the movie opens, Jerry's managed to ram his boss' car, thereby exposing the live body in the trunk, which entitles the boss to an all-expenses-paid vacation courtesy of the federal government. As payback, Jerry is given a choice between 1) a slow death and 2) a quick trip to Mexico.

While down there, he's supposed to get his hands on a legendary antique pistol known as "The Mexican." That keeps Jerry busy for most of the movie. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Samantha (Roberts), has had it up to here with Jerry's selfish regard for his own life. "Don't diminish my needs," she screams at him while packing her bags for Vegas, where she hopes to become a croupier. Armed with the full panoply of relationship-speak, Samantha is basically a nag; and as Roberts proved in Erin Brockovich, nagginess suits her. Unfortunately, she's not working with the same quality material here (or the same quality director), and she's not a very resourceful actress, so she keeps falling back on things that have worked for her in the past--that million-watt smile, for example. But hey, who wouldn't pay $7.50 for that million-watt smile?

On her way to Vegas, Samantha gets kidnapped by a hit man (James Gandolfini) who plans to use her as collateral toward Jerry's return. "I'm sensing you have trust issues," she tells him after recovering from the shock of being taken hostage. But those aren't the only issues he has. Our lonely hit man turns out to be gay, which is The Mexican's way of topping both Analyze This and "The Sopranos." Gandolfini, who brings a nice element of calm to his scenes with Roberts, doesn't even try to disguise Tony Soprano's dem-dose mannerisms, and you keep thinking, "Wait till Dr. Melfi hears about this one." Shot through a yellow filter that turns the whole world the color of urine (there's a lot of peeing in this movie), The Mexican doesn't exactly inspire deep thought. But it's a pleasant waste of time, thanks mostly to Pitt.

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