Other things being equal, Julia Roberts paired with Brad Pitt would waltz away with the box office if the movie were How To Deodorize Your Carpet. DreamWorks would probably have an easier time figuring out how to sell that film than they will The Mexican, and I mean that as a compliment to this self-indulgent charmer of a caper by Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt). In fact, I doubt the studio would be releasing the movie at all if it weren‘t packaged with two of the most bankable faces in the business. Undisciplined and overstuffed with enough surplus plot twists to make your neck ache, The Mexican affects the tousled look of a self-conscious indie. Roberts has never been worse dressed: Erin Brockovich herself would blanch at her burgundy shag and trashy wardrobe, which climaxes in a shocking-pink T-shirt under a shocking-orange cardigan over a pistachio skirt. And if this weren’t enough, Pitt sheds his shirt but once, then slips it back on before you can say, ”Nice pecs.“

The Mexican is a romantic comedy trying to shake hands with a Western, poking just enough fun at both to win over young moviegoers who regard any cultural trend that predates them as retro, and just sincere enough to appeal to those of us who grew up taking such trends seriously. Anyone who prefers his genre pictures straight will be driven right up the wall by the film‘s willful digressiveness, but that is also what saves the movie from its fussy plot, in which Pitt plays Jerry Welbach, a bungling bagman who, against the wishes of his girlfriend, Samantha (Roberts), travels to Mexico on one last mission to retrieve an antique pistol, known as ”The Mexican“ because of its colorful history and priceless beauty, for the mob boss who has him over a barrel for a past mistake. Infuriated, Samantha takes off alone for Las Vegas, and in short order finds herself taken hostage, twice — first by a dandified black mystery man (Sherman Augustus), then by a man who announces himself as Leroy (James ”Tony Soprano“ Gandolfini), a hit man entrusted with holding her until the pistol is safely returned.

What follows are two overlapping and fairly inconsequential road movies — serially interrupted by sepia retellings of the legend that makes the gun so sacred — snaking all over the map as they prepare to become one. The pleasure is all in the snaking, which relies upon the premise, as warmed-over as they come, that nobody in this movie can make a relationship stick. That The Mexican escapes the grating wackiness of the endless ”quirky“ comedies about gangsters with soul we’ve suffered through since Tarantino blew onto center stage, is due in large measure to J.H. Wyman‘s noodling, loony, tender script for the real couple at the heart of the movie — and it’s not who you think. Pitt‘s bickering exchanges with Roberts, plugged with babbling rhetoric culled from the therapy group she has forced him to attend, seem drab and enervated compared to Roberts’ chemistry with Gandolfini, a seasoned underplayer who can both hold his own against the radiant superstar, and make her glow ever brighter. Some of the most glittering banter in Hollywood romantic comedy has been built on the foundation not of sexual challenge, but of companionability and knowing how to quarrel with style. If the Samantha-Leroy relationship appears at times to be devoted to the dubious proposition that the couple that pees together stays together, it‘s somehow more convincing than two pretty people hurling invective before they melt into the obligatory clinch.

Only yesterday, the hills were alive with Taranteenies hawking their own private Pulp Fictions. In 2001, we’ll likely as not be hearing the patter of tiny Soderberghian feet in every studio hallway, eagerly pitching scripts about losers, Limey and otherwise, pursuing their low lives while dispensing sage insights on the meaning of existence. That is clearly The Mexican‘s template, and will be for many other films. Which could be a lot worse, especially if they clear the decks for Julia Roberts to grow into a great, warm, acerbic Hollywood broad with her choice of juicy roles, and no need to fall back on Runaway Mother of the Bride or Pretty Well-Preserved Woman.

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