Pistol Whipped

The star-power combo of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts is the big selling point of The Mexican, and yet they share few scenes together. They barely have time for chemistry, let alone biology. The film is structured as a series of crosscutting dual story lines, and almost all the good material is on the Julia Roberts side. I’m not sure the film would have been any better if the stars continually occupied the same airspace, but at least then fans expecting a romantic twosome would not have felt cheated. Left to his own devices, without the constant companionship of a love interest, Pitt indulges his worst acting habits – the glam poses and forced bonhomie. Roberts does a bit better because she has a major actor to play opposite: James Gandolfini, who is finally given an opportunity to bring to the movies some of the power and stamina he brings to The Sopranos, in a very different role as a gay hit man who holds Roberts hostage. He’s the true star of the film, and his stardom is achieved in the most honest of ways, through the sheer brute force of his talent.

Brad Pitt’s Jerry is an amiable, feckless bag man for an L.A. mobster (Bob Balaban), and Julia Roberts’s Samantha is his long-suffering, still-enamored girlfriend. Jerry is sent to Mexico for what he says will be his last job before going straight, but Samantha, fed up with his false promises, goes off on her own to Vegas, where she intends to begin life anew as a croupier. Samantha is clogged with psychobabble, and we’re supposed to find it cute that she reads a book called Men Who Can’t Love with highlighter in hand. “I need sunshine to grow,” she declares, and unfortunately the moviemakers seem to be on her wavelength. That is, when they’re not putting her down for her babbling. Director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter J. H. Wyman are specialists in playing both sides of the street. Samantha’s gooey romanticism is frequently made to seem like true love; there is never any doubt that she will stand by her man, even if he doesn’t stand by her. And yet, ultimately, her quest for self-help comes across as foolery – a dingbat exercise for unliberated ladies. The condescension built into this approach is perplexing, since Samantha is so much more ardent than Jerry and, more to the point, Julia Roberts is so much more ardent than Brad Pitt. Coming after Erin Brockovich, her flouncy bubble-headed appearance here seems more of a punishment for her than a reward.

The filmmakers also play it both ways in portraying Mexico. Jerry goes down there to retrieve a priceless antique pistol known as “The Mexican,” and keeps running into locals who make fun of his gringo ways. But these same Mexicans are often characterized as Frito Banditos. The film racks up p.c. points while indulging in the crassest stereotyping. And then there’s the brownish haze that hangs over most of the Mexican scenes (the Vegas scenes are a lot brighter). What is this recent fascination with browning up Mexico in the movies? When Steven Soderbergh did it in Traffic, he at least was creating an overall color scheme, although I wasn’t crazy about the technique there, either: It encouraged us to think of Mexico as a brackish netherworld, a gringo conception if ever there was one. In The Mexican, the tobacco-stained look of Jerry’s scenes are a dumb-dumb’s shorthand, a way of letting the slow learners in the audience know we’re not in Nevada.

Only in the James Gandolfini sequences does the film confound cliché, and then probably only because of the actor’s overriding intensity. Playing a character who calls himself Leroy, Gandolfini in his scenes with Roberts is required to be in touch with his “sensitive” side; Leroy understands Samantha’s love blues because he’s got his own. The implication is that heterosexual hit men are unencumbered by similar feelings of love and loss. All this might seem rather dopey and offensive except that Gandolfini makes you forget the sex-typed special pleading and allows you to see just a man in pain. The babble he is called upon to spout issues from a hurt core, and so it doesn’t seem so much like babble after a while.

That’s quite an achievement, since the main line of repartee between Leroy and Samantha makes a sob session on Oprah seem positively rigorous by comparison. “If you love somebody, when do you give up?” is the constant refrain. The right answer is: “Never.” Is this what is being taught in couples therapy these days? The swoony high-mindedness of this sentiment is undercut by another, more curious motif. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mainstream movie in which people are shown going to the bathroom in one another’s presence quite as often as in this one. The implication is clear: Love means never having to close the door.

The slew of reality-based TV shows is beginning to spawn movies about those same kinds of shows. Often billed as satires, they frequently seem indistinguishable from their targets. The Truman Show and EDtv were pioneers in this field, but they didn’t score big, perhaps because people like their “reality” with a bit more reality. Daniel Minahan’s Series 7, which was shot on digital video, is closer in look and episodic format to an actual TV series, but in its own small-scale way it promotes itself as a searing indictment of the Real World culture. Mostly, though, it resembles a digitized revamp of the sci-fi classic The Tenth Victim, remembered chiefly for Ursula Andress’s bullet-firing brassiere. Nothing as royal as that takes place in Series 7, which stars Brooke Smith as the eight-months-pregnant reigning champion of a hit TV series called The Contenders, where randomly selected people kill off one another until one is left standing. A stentorian, Mr. Moviephone-ish voice narrates the action, and the cast of contenders, including an emergency-room nurse, a high-school brat, a conspiracy theorist, and a dying pacifist, are intended to represent the gamut of all-American ordinariness. There’s less here than meets the eye or ear: We’re a long way from Jonathan Swift, and any old episode of Cops is bound to be more engrossing, not to mention “real.” But, after being floored by her in Vanya on 42nd Street, I was glad to see Brooke Smith in a leading role, where she belongs. She holds a gun so convincingly that she could, God help us, become an action-movie queen.

The Mexican
Starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.
Series 7
Starring Brooke Smith.

Pistol Whipped