A famous actor makes an unbilled appearance in a small role toward the close of Gore Verbinski’s romantic comedy-thriller “The Mexican,” and he does a thoroughly professional job. There’s nothing special to the part, though, and it could have been played equally well by any number of fellows whose faces and names few of us would recognize. So the question arises: why the cameo? The answer seems to be nothing more profound than that the actor thought it might be fun and the filmmakers knew it would give the audience an easy kick: “Hey, isn’t that…?” And that’s precisely the problem with the whole film. It’s not that “The Mexican” is terrible; the male half of the leading couple refers to what’s he’s suffered over the course of the plot as a “long debacle,” but it would unfair to apply that phrase to the picture. Indeed, the flick has its share of quirkily amusing moments, and the performers appear to be enjoying themselves–something that engages the audience, too. But it’s one of those films that, while sporadically pleasant, never really achieves critical mass. Though likable enough in a rather dowdy, rumpled way, it’s too fractured and structurally slipshod to amount to much, and so ephemeral that it passes out of the consciousness almost as soon as it unspools. You’ll probably walk out of the theatre feeling reasonably good, but unable to remember a great deal about what you’ve just seen, and not caring either.
“The Mexican” is basically a loopy road picture, but oddly enough–given its pairing of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts–the superstars share remarkably little screen time, being separated through most of the labyrinthine plot. Pitt plays Jerry Welbach, a decidedly laid-back and physically clumsy fellow who’s accidentally forced into performing a service for a now-incarcerated mob boss and assigned to travel south of the border to retrieve a priceless revolver (the “Mexican” of the title) for the fellow. Jerry’s girlfriend Samantha (Roberts) objects most strenuously, saying she’ll leave him if he goes off without her; but the poor schmuck sees no alternative, having been threatened with death if he refuses. So Jerry makes his way to Mexico, where his natural ineptitude and bad luck soon get him into trouble involving local robbers, the police and a variety of other colorful characters. Meanwhile Samantha is taken hostage by a gunman named Leroy (James Gandolfini), who’s apparently been assigned to keep her under wraps as insurance that Jerry will complete the job. Most of the picture deals alternately with Jerry’s increasingly frustrating experiences in doing what’s expected of him and Sam and Leroy’s gradual development of a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect; as part of his journey, Jerry is exposed to a variety of mythic descriptions (all delivered in surrealistic flashback) about how the fabled gun came to be, while on her side Samantha becomes a kind of romantic advisor to the captor-hitman, whose predilections turn out to be rather different from what one might expect. This might all sound quite benign, but the picture has a distinctly seamy side, too: the action is repeatedly punctuated by gruesome killings and a succession of double-crosses and twists that don’t mesh terribly well with the fluffier moments. (The intricacies of the plot, which once more show the seemingly ubiquitous influence of “Charade,” are also occasionally inexplicable: at one point a major character simply disappears without explanation, presumably for no better reason than that the scriptwriter had no further need of him, and the denouement is virtually incomprehensible.) The apparent intent was (with all due respect to Gandolfini) to replicate on the big screen the combination of light and dark that “The Sopranos” has managed on the small one. Unfortunately, neither scripter J.H. Wyman nor helmer Verbinski (whose sole previous effort was the heavy-handed techno-farce “Mouse Hunt”) has the dexterity to bring off so delicate a balance. As a result “The Mexican” careens so uneasily from slapstick to violence to froth to suspense that you’ll probably end the ride feeling a bit car-sick.
Nonetheless the malady doesn’t prove fatal, largely because the cast is so game. Pitt proves an amiable goofball, managing to keep his character sympathetic even after we see him doing some pretty awful things. Roberts is compelled to rant too much and too often–shrewishness doesn’t really become her–but she’s unmistakably a star, working well with both Pitt and Gandolfini, who brings the same mix of authority and bemusement to Leroy that he regularly invests Tony Soprano with. There are eye-catching supporting turns from Bob Balaban in a decidedly uncharacteristic role as a mob lieutenant whose sharp tongue and smooth manner make him a threatening figure indeed, and Richard Coca, who brings a welcome geniality to the part of a roguish car thief. I won’t reveal who the surprise guest star is at the close; but at least it’s not Gary Oldman again.
The good news about “The Mexican,” therefore, is that it gives its stars some nice opportunities to showcase their talents, and isn’t unbearable. The bad news is that structurally it’s as clumsy as its bumbling hero, and its multiple shifts of tone may leave you a more than a little queasy by the close.