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REFRESHING BUT ADDLED COMEDY UNDER THE GUN.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

In the bittersweet romance ``The Mexican,'' Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt have a big shouting match at the beginning, don't see each other again for most of the movie and argue some more when they get together near the end.

In the Tarantino-meets-Peckinpah crime-flick western ``The Mexican,'' people are shot in the foot, in the neck, in a wedding gown and through the very top of their head. Sometimes graphically. Often humorously.

In the sensitive character study ``The Mexican,'' a woman with lots of relationship problems bonds platonically but therapeutically with a man who has plenty of his own issues. He's a cold-blooded professional killer who's kidnapped her, but heck, you get your compassion wherever you can these days.

And in the up-to-the-minute American comedy ``The Mexican,'' some of Hollywood's biggest and most respected stars sure spend a lot of time doing funny things in and around toilets.

As you may have guessed, ``The Mexican'' is no slave to expectations. It's not the most coherent movie in the world, either; I counted at least a half-dozen serious logic loopholes in J.H. Wyman's ambitiously eclectic script. Nevertheless, this hodgepodge bears a great deal of charm that's not often found in slicker big-star vehicles.

Of course, in order to be beguiled, you have to be in the mood for a movie in which Roberts is more often obnoxious than lovable, Pitt acts like an idiot (though on purpose this time, unlike in some of his earlier roles) and James Gandolfini - who plays that paragon of miserably married masculinity, Tony Soprano, on HBO - shows some unexpected inclinations.

Pitt's Jerry and Roberts' Samantha don't agree on anything except the basic can't-live-with/can't-live-without-each-other mess they're stuck in. She reads selmprovement books and drags him to relationship counseling. It's not clear what he would prefer to be doing - beside no longer being indebted to the crime boss he has to run errands for, or else - but Jerry's general air of incomprehension and incompetence is strong evidence that he'd rather be anywhere but the situation he's in.

Anywhere except, maybe, a timeless town in the remote Sierra Madres where Jerry's been ordered to go pick up The Mexican, a beautiful pistol handcrafted in Old West days that's brought nothing but trouble to whomever's touched it.

This goes double for hard-luck Jerry, who keeps getting and losing the gun under absurd circumstances. Meanwhile, somewhere on the road between L.A. and Vegas, Gandolfini's Leroy snatches Sam. This has something to do with Jerry's misadventures in Mexico, and you'd think that Sam would flee to freedom at one of the many public opportunities that present themselves. But no, once these lovelorn yakkers start commiserating, you couldn't pry them apart with a crowbar. Plus, there's this other guy with a gun ...

The Mexican itself is equal parts Maltese Falcon (several legends of its origin, all varying, are restaged in flickery, silent-film sepia), Hitchcockian Macguffin and thematic symbol of whatever it is the film's trying to say about love and death and loyalty and commitment and such.

As he did in ``Snatch,'' Pitt once again proves that he's the best- looking comedian working in film today. Gandolfini quietly balances formidability and tenderness to, as we've come to count on from him, expert effect.

But the most interesting performance is Roberts'. The foulmouthed spunkiness that was so winning in ``Erin Brockovich'' devolves here into a kind of shrill self-absorption. Even though Sam's love for doofus Jerry is more desperate than abusive and she exhibits a genuine nurturing instinct toward Leroy, the character never really transcends her first impression as a never-ending pain. Played by most any other actress, Sam would be intolerable. But for someone with a ``don't-you-just-love-my-smile?'' track record like Roberts, staying true to Sam's abrasiveness represents a kind of integrity, especially in a character whose moment-to-moment motivations defy logic.

The director is Gore Verbinski (``Mouse Hunt''), and he's obviously a fan of '60s westerns. The loosely staged, handheld cinematography (by ``The Crow's'' Dariusz Wolski) has something of the old Peckinpah kineticism without aping the master's balletic compositions. And Alan Silvestri's musical score is a treat for any fan of Ennio Morricone's work from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns.

But of all the classic movie bits this genre mishmash evokes, it reminded me more than anything else of John Huston's 1954 ``Beat the Devil,'' another bedraggled spoof that saw Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones and other names of the time delightfully vamp it through a rudderless scenario - just generally being silly, but in a consistently creative and entertaining way.

``THE MEXICAN''

(Rated R: violence, language)

The stars: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gandolfini, J.K. Simmons, Bob Balaban, Gene Hackman.

Behind the scenes: Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by J.H. Wyman. Produced by Lawrence Bender and John Baldecchi. Released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Running time: Two hours.

Playing: Citywide.

Our rating: Three stars

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photo

Photo: Julia Roberts stars as an irritating woman kidnapped by a hitman in ``The Mexican.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Mar 2, 2001
Words:835
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