The Mexican

“The Mexican” I saw in a theater this week was not the same movie being advertised on television. The one being advertised on television looks like a typically droll Julia Roberts/Brad Pitt romantic comedy. The one in theaters is a dark comedy in which Roberts and Pitt share only a few scenes together.

The reason I bring this up is because I liked the film I saw in the theater much better than the one that’s being advertised on television.

mexcianGood news for anyone looking for something a little bit different from two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Bad news for everyone else thinking they’re going to see “Runaway Bride II.” I like films that take chances, and even though “The Mexican” is long in the tooth, it’s never comfortable. It’s edgy and unpredictable.

It’s no surprise that “The Mexican” comes from Gore Verbinski, the former commercial director whose debut film, “Mouse Hunt,” was a virtuoso blend of wit and whimsy. Verbinski’s ability to create credible characters in incredible situations is a perfect match for J. H. Wyman’s quirky screenplay. Wyman’s dialogue, characters and situations are refreshingly offbeat.

“The Mexican” features Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt as two longtime lovers who have reached an apex in their relationship. Samantha (Roberts) wants a commitment and a change of venue. She’s sick of Los Angeles and her boyfriend Jerry’s (Pitt) inability to put a ring on her finger. Samantha wants to move to Las Vegas to become a waitress, and eventually, a croupier. She has the fingers for it, from her mother’s side of the family.

Samantha is upset when Jerry agrees to do one more favor for a mob boss, whom he accidentally sent to prison after plowing into his car, revealing a body in the trunk. Jerry knows the consequences of refusing and agrees. The favor involves bringing back an antique gun from Mexico. Seems like a no brainer, but that’s the problem. Jerry isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, and on occasion, he’s downright dim.

While Jerry chases down the gun, known as “The Mexican,” Samantha packs up her belongings and heads to Las Vegas to begin her new life. En route she’s kidnapped by Leroy (James Gandolfini), a hit man for the mob boss, who accompanies Samantha to Las Vegas as insurance.

Roberts and Pitt open and close the film together, but otherwise share separate storylines. I liked Samantha’s story the best. She’s an innocent in all of this, and watching Roberts take Samantha through her paces is a treat. Roberts goes from scared victim to a woman in control, and the transformation is real and believable. I watched “Notting Hill” again on cable the other day, and just marveled at how luminous Roberts really is.

She glows in this film, delivering a full-bodied performance that literally saves the day. When she’s not on the screen you miss her. She shares most of her screen time with the great James Gandolfini, a master of spin control. Gandolfini is one of those rare actors who can slip into the character of a bad guy and make him likeable.

Still, you never doubt that Gandolfini’s Leroy is a professional. He’s likeable, but deadly. Even though Leroy and Samantha share some warm and wonderful moments, they both know that it’s business.

Down in Mexico, Jerry goes from one bad experience to another. His rental car and the gun are stolen, sending Jerry on a tireless search for both. The Mexico half of the story isn’t nearly as interesting or engaging as the Las Vegas half. Pitt constantly struggles to reconcile his character. One moment he’s sweet and goofy, the next he’s dense and stupid. It’s not pretty.

The scenery sure is, thanks to Dariusz Wolski’s distinctive cinematography. The Mexico scenes are bathed in a golden hue, while the Las Vegas scenes are crisp and vibrant. This old world, new world contrast is complimented by Cecilia Montiel’s exquisite production design and Alan Silvestri’s catchy score.

Writer J. H. Wyman wrote “The Mexican” as a small film, which explains the potent mix of comedy and violent drama. “The Mexican” is tricky stuff, but it works on it’s own level. Even though he’s working with big budget stars, director Verbinski wisely maintains the intimacy of the script. The action is character driven, not vice versa. By the time the film ends, you feel like you know these people.

“The Mexican” is violent, but that’s the nature of this beast. It’s about bad people who do bad things. Unlike “3,000 Miles to Graceland,” which was overly violent and didn’t feature any redeemable characters, “The Mexican” has characters you can root for. It may not be the film I was expecting, but in this case, that turned out to be a good thing.


Julia Roberts dodges bullet in quirky comedy


Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Bob Balaban, Gene Hackman, J. K. Simmons. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Rated R.


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