The Mexican

meksikanetsA lot of star power plugged into a little story usually causes the story to short-circuit. Movies like The Negotiator or What Lies Beneath probably needed their big stars in order to get produced, but the stars couldn’t do much with the rote stories — it’s a losing scenario for everyone except the studios, which cleaned up with the aforementioned films and will likely clean up with The Mexican, the new Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts vehicle. The movie is neither as good as you might hope (given that Pitt and Roberts have been excellent elsewhere) nor as bad as you might fear (or hope, if you enjoy picking apart bad star vehicles). It just sits there, doing nothing that a competent made-for-cable movie with C-list stars couldn’t do.

Pitt and Roberts are Jerry and Samantha, a quarreling couple who are in marriage counselling even though they’re not married. Samantha is fed up with Jerry and his recurring obligations to shady mob figures; Jerry feels unappreciated and misunderstood — he’s only working for the mob to protect her and himself from harm. (The obligation goes back to a fender-bender too tedious to detail here.) Having bungled his previous “last job” for the mob, Jerry embarks on a last “last job”: find an antique Mexican pistol and deliver it to the mob boss. In a huff of disapproval, Samantha takes off for her pre-planned trip to Las Vegas; Jerry heads south of the border.

It’s been endlessly pointed out that the script, by J.H. Wyman, was originally designed for slightly lesser stars than Pitt and Roberts; I don’t know if the material would have felt less routine with lesser-knowns, though. Director Gore Verbinski (MouseHunt) keeps things moving, but two hours plus is a long sit for a romantic comedy — I generally subscribe to the John Waters dictum that no comedy has any business crossing the 90-minute mark. We don’t care about Jerry or Samantha; Pitt gives a good-sport, well-meaning-doofus performance, looking as though he really did this movie to make a chick flick and make Jennifer Aniston happy, and Roberts more often than not is too shrill and keyed-up. Together, by plot design, they have no chemistry. The stars, then, are being highly paid not to make magic together.

Some incidental pleasures: James Gandolfini, as a hitman who kidnaps Samantha and gradually wins her platonic affection and trust, does his usual gruff-teddy-bear thing; he’s become a whiz at it, but if he doesn’t watch out he may turn into the next Joe Pesci, a lovable goombah who’s no longer remotely dangerous. Here and there you get quirky actors like Bob Balaban as a surprisingly foul-mouthed mob guy (surprisingly for Balaban, who seems too neat and manicured even to have heard such words), Oz‘s J.K. Simmons as a low-level mobster (he’s fine as always, but his waify blonde hairpiece really doesn’t go with his mug), and a nice cameo at the end (spoiled by several critics) by an acting legend who makes Brad Pitt look like a dinner-theater actor without even getting up from his chair.

But mainly this is a star vehicle, apparently rewritten as such, so there are few surprises (aside from a largely irrelevant factoid about Gandolfini’s character which seemingly exists to give Julia a chance to rehash some My Best Friend’s Wedding vibes). The Mexican is painless enough, a competent no-brainer with big Hollywood names directed by a non-entity who can be trusted to park the vehicle without a scratch. I can’t really say what the major difference is between this movie and Julia Roberts’ previous star vehicle, Erin Brockovich; maybe the difference is the director (Steven Soderbergh, certainly the opposite of non-entity), or maybe it’s just that Erin Brockovich would’ve been a good movie even without Julia, and Julia made it shine. The Mexican probably would’ve been a lame movie without Julia and Brad, and it’s only slightly less lame with them; there are too many moments where you catch them thinking that the movie needs them far more than they need it.

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