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Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Hollywood goes indie . . .

The Mexican

Rating: * * Director: Gore Verbinski Running time: 123 minutes Language: EnglishNow showing

"Brad, meet Julia." And with that, the makers of "The Mexican" probably sat back smugly and started dreaming of box-office dominance. With casting like that, you could make a film called "Steaming Pile of Dog Poop" and still make millions. You could even make yet another post-Tarantino chatty gangsters and ironic violence quasi-indie flick with zero new ideas: Welcome to "The Mexican."

Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in "The Mexican"

A decade on, and we're still getting "Reservoir Dogs" wannabes, but since this one bears the name of Tarantino's producer, Lawrence Bender, in the credits, expectations were high . . . well, higher than they'd normally be for a star vehicle by a graduate of the Nike/Budweiser/Coca Cola school of filmmaking like commercial director Gore Verbinski.

At a Tokyo International Film Festival party last fall, Bender -- wedged somwhere between the silicone wonders of the Kano Sisters -- described "The Mexican" as "edgy" and a bold move for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Hardly. Pitt went much further out there with "Fight Club," while Julia was "edgier" in "Pretty Woman," although her shrill tone here may have you on edge by the time the credits roll.

This casting coup was so brilliant that apparently nobody noticed the scriptwriter, who was saying: "Hey, let's have Brad play a grinning idiot and Julia play a total carping harpy! That's what audiences want to see!" Not.

In that aspect, "The Mexican" resembles nothing so much as another ill-fated "sure thing": Think "A Life Less Ordinary," director Danny Boyle's dimly received followup to "Trainspotting." Like that film, "The Mexican" wants to be a zany couple-on-the-run road movie-cum-romantic comedy. And, like Boyle, Verbinski is so sure of the sheer beauty and charm of his leads that he forgets to present them as likable people. Just like Cameron Diaz and Ewan MacGregor in "A Life Less Ordinary," Roberts comes off looking like a total bitch, while Pitt is just a loser.

This may be good for the comedy, but they both get on your nerves so much, that by the time they get all puppy-eyed and the camera moves in for the warmly lit close-ups before the big glossy smooch, you're hoping that the Mafia, or the Mexican druglords, or someone, anyone, will just do a Bonnie and Clyde number on them.

Pitt's character is a petty criminal named Jerry who's so stupid he managed to land his own boss in jail by running a red light. His girlfriend, Samantha (Roberts), is a shrew who immerses herself in pyschobabble books to find more ways to blame Jerry for their relationship problems. He screws up and she nags him about it; great chemistry, huh? If the dialogue was sharp -- like '40s screwball-comedy sharp -- this might have worked, but Verbinski has about as much flair for comedy as the Taliban.

Anyway, Jerry's boss sends him off on one "last chance" mission to recover a priceless (and cursed) Mexican revolver for him from south of the border, or else. (Makes a lot of sense, send your most inept lackey to do the most important mission.) Samantha gets all bent out of shape that Jerry chooses not getting whacked over a weekend in Vegas with her and shrieks at him for a good long while.

Jerry goes down to Mexico, where he encounters a sepia-tinted land that's half Sam Peckinpah oily corruption, half Gabriel Garcia Marquez magical realism, and 100 percent mierda del toro. Best joke you can expect: Pitt trying to communicate with the locals, saying "I need a lift in your el trucko to the next el towno."

Samantha goes to Vegas, where she's snatched by a hulking hit man named Leroy (James Garolfini), hired by Jerry's boss to hold her as an insurance policy on delivery of the gun. Best joke: Sam berating Leroy, saying "I'm sensing you have trust issues."

The film's one good move was casting Garolfini (of "The Sopranos") as the no-nonsense pro who has to deal with these two flakes. But just when you're thinking maybe he's the one who's gonna put them out of their misery, you find him having touchy-feely relationship confabs with Julia. (Quentin Tarantino, meet Ally McBeal.) The joke here being that a lug with a New Yawk Guido accent is actually, you know, a fag.

Well, ha ha. The real joke with "The Mexican" is on everyone who goes to see it expecting some hanky-panky between two of Hollywood's hottest sex symbols. Caveat emptor.

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