Gore Verbinski, who directed The Mexican, is a TV commercial auteur whose award-winning reel includes the first Budweiser talking frogs spot. (Verbinski stretched as an artist in his feature directorial debut, reaching out to rodents in Mouse Hunt.)
Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, on the other hand, who star in The Mexican, are top of the food chain -- they're BRAD & JULIA, prince and princess of Hollywood, brought together for the first time in a historic union of box office royalty.
And here's where worlds collide: Every now and then, when this picaresque caper loses its way, you can imagine Pitt and Roberts, each posed prettily on a lily pad, ribbitting BRAD. JULIA. BRAD. JULIA. You can envision them basking especially when the mournful flourishes of the soundtrack's Mexican trumpets fall in a decrescendo of tinny cliches. And when the atmospheric scenes of dark-eyed kids waving sparklers blur from overuse. And when all the ancillary characters up to no particular good for no particular reason become wearisome. And when you can't tell whether Verbinski is going for romance, comedy, or a Nike ad.
BRAD. JULIA. BRAD. JULIA. He smiles. She smiles. He squabbles charmingly with her. She scrabbles delightfully with him. In a flick of the tongue, they've pulled in more ticket buyers.
Do they entertain? Yes, as movie stars can, costumed in eye-catching amber and umber and ruby-colored T-shirts, staging a ''scene'' in which a pair of lovers ''fight'' or ''flee bad guys.'' Do they create characters worth caring about -- i.e., does Pitt convince us that he really is a conflicted Mob bagman named Jerry, and that he really is in danger when he's sent south of the border from Las Vegas to retrieve a valuable antique pistol called ''the Mexican,'' and that Roberts, as his girlfriend, Samantha, really is so committed to better communication with her man that she drags him to group therapy, and that the intrinsically adorable duo are crazy in bickering love? Ribbit.
This would-be-Peckinpah, wannabe-Tarantino, could-be-Gilliam story, with its contemporary, ironic dodges and feints, is, after all, made for a pair of stars with a quarter of the worldwide luster of BRAD & JULIA. Literally. The nuts-and-bolts original script by J.H. Wyman was first envisioned for relative unknowns, who would have been free to play the fun, frenetic heck out of hellishly-in-over-their-heads Jerry and Sam. Even somewhat-knowns (Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton?) or better-knowns (Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock?) might have had a clearer shot than best-knowns at freeing Jerry and Sam from the ennui of the script's larkiness and disposable irony: Bob Balaban plays a control-freak Mob heavy, Oz's J.K. Simmons a neurotic Mob sidekick -- are there no more happy-go-lucky wiseguys left on screen? (There's also a requisite deadpan Mexican car rental agent, pawnbroker, grandmother, and smart dog.)
Alternatively, BRAD & JULIA might have made a perfectly okay, B-size product -- but for the striking A-level performance of James Gandolfini as Leroy, a complex, anti-ironic hitman who kidnaps Samantha to further ensure the gun's safe return. (The pistol, by the way, has a tragic curse attached to it, not counting the curse of calling forth scenes of old-timey Mexican drama that seem to have been swept off the cutting-room floor of All the Pretty Horses.)
It's not the fault of The Sopranos' charismatic, beefy star that he's an actor of such substance and quiet ardor as to make idle movie star ribbitting look frivolous. But from the moment he enters the story, in a wordless scene involving Samantha, a highway rest-stop toilet stall, and a gun, Leroy ups the ante -- and ups our hopes for a story with true grit. (Samantha clearly responds to his gravitas.) Leroy is, hands down, the person we care about most, and when he's not on screen, the tortilla flatness of The Mexican becomes even more frustrating.
''I'm here to regulate funkiness,'' he explains to his hostage, but really, what Gandolfini demonstrates is how one powerful player can regulate the thermostat of an entire film. Not only is the actor who currently rules pop culture as Tony Soprano able to step believably into a new character's skin, but he's also able to calm the leading lady's itchy skin: In her scenes opposite Gandolfini, Roberts hops far from her lily pad, to a place that's the closest to emotional truth we're going to see from her Samantha, and the communication between hostage and hostage taker takes The Mexican, at least for a time, to an exciting place. (Albert Finney knew how to draw exciting work from Roberts in Erin Brockovich too; I see an award-winning future for her playing opposite tough guys.)
Then it's back to frogland again, and cute scenes with Pitt and a doggy. Croak. C+
The Mexican STARRING Brad Pitt Julia Roberts DREAMWORKS RATED R 120 MINUTES