Make no mistake. The Mexican is a star vehicle in which both Brad and Julia mug their way through the film, always seeming distracted, as if wondering when their paychecks are going to arrive. Actually, Brad and Julia spend precious little time together, about ten minutes total, at the beginning and the end of the film. But perhaps this is a good thing, as the “romance” between their characters is hardly developed and there is a distinct lack of chemistry between the actors. The film is overly long, or perhaps just ploddingly paced and unnecessarily repetitive: it runs two hours, but it feels more like forever. And the story, which gets told a number of different ways, a number of different times, is really rather contrived and boring.
The Mexican follows the turbulent near-end of the relationship between hapless Mafia gopher Jerry Welbach (Brad) and his obsessive, psycho-babbling girlfriend Samantha Barzel (Julia), who reduces everything in her life to “blame-shifting” and others’ inability to express their emotions. It seems that, just as Jerry is about to get out of the crime business, he is given (another) one last job—to go to Mexico, meet up with an American expat named Beck (David Krumholtz), and bring him and the pricey antique gun he is holding (named, naturally, “the Mexican”), back to his bosses in LA. At the same time, Sam, having had enough (and the question of when lovers say “enough is enough” to each other is the film’s repeated romantic “hook”), heads out for a new life as a waitress, and eventually a croupier, in Las Vegas. Well, things go wrong for both of them. Jerry faces a series of disastrous mishaps that prevent him from getting out of Mexico and raise his boss’s suspicions about Jerry’s allegiances. These mishaps lead to Sam’s kidnapping by an icy hitman named Leroy (James Gandolfini).
Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gandolfini, David Krumholtz, Gene Hackman
The story of the cursed gun “The Mexican” is, frankly, the film’s worst part and drags The Mexican to a halt repeatedly. You see, the gun is quite old and quite legendary, and a number of mysteries and deaths surround its crafting and its intended use (not a gun for killing per se, this is a gun as gift of love/promise of dedication). Like all legends the story differs from account to account. And so, throughout the film we see “vintage-film” style flashbacks in which various characters recount the history of “the Mexican.” These flashbacks are set against a cheesy, obviously all-facade backdrop of a rural and impoverished Mexican town. The cheese factor is intentional—the town is as fabricated as the various tellings of the story. The Mexican tries to be all clever and self-conscious (and post-structuralist) in its attention to the contingencies of “truth” and “narrative,” and attempts to show how, like the story of the gun changes in the retelling, so too does the story of Jerry and Sam’s relationship, and, for that matter, any of the relationships among any of the other characters. The stories we tell about our lives, you see, are all subject to the vagaries of individual interpretation, intention, and embellishment. Well yeah, but who cares? Such attention to narrative as life is awkward and needlessly complicated. This entire sub-plot could be left out and The Mexican would be a far better film.
The Mexican does try to breathe a little originality into the romantic comedy genre, and fails. Most directly, the film tries to flip the script in its representation of the Mafioso hit man Leroy. His secret is… he’s gay! I imagine screenwriter J.H. Wyman’s epiphany as something like this: “Oooh, here’s a way to include a gay character who doesn’t fall into predictable stereotypes and phobic cliches.” Leroy recognizes this: when he comes out to Sam, and she remarks that his profession doesn’t seem conducive to his lifestyle (whatever that means), he quips back, “What, you think I should be an interior decorator or something?” Admittedly, this could be an interesting twist (and if this is the sort of thing you want, check out Douglas Langways’ Raising Heroes in which gay vigilante daddies take on the mob to protect their adopted child). The problem is, though, that it is merely James Gandolfini reprising his role from The Sopranos, and Leroy’s gayness is an obvious attempt to add a little something new to that role. But, as Leroy becomes Sam’s relationship counselor, The Mexican replays what has become a standard formula recently in romantic comedies like The Next Best Thing, My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Object of My Affection, etc., in which gay boys teach straight girls all about love, romance and sex. Whatever.
Most irksome about The Mexican is the way it represents Mexico and the Mexican people. Presumably, Mexico is supposed to stand in for the long since past “Wild West” of the United States where the only law is the law of the gun and anything goes. Well, maybe. But The Mexican winds up repeating colonialist and racist depictions of foreigners, and casts both country and people in a crassly exploitative primitivism. Everywhere animals roam the cities and litter the streets, and the populace, which barely has enough to survive on, is irresponsible and foolhardy with what little they have—they drive crazily in beat up old cars, or they sink everything they have into low-riding El Caminos. The small Mexican towns Jerry and company visit are filled with corrupt merchants and policemen, cheerfully poverty-stricken children and drunken banditos who run around in the night lighting up fireworks and shooting their guns into the air, inadvertently killing innocent bystanders.
Still, the Mexicans in the film are constantly making fun of the “stupid Americans,” even though, of course, the “stupid Americans” have all the money and power, and can always “get out” of Mexico. But perhaps the film is a bit sneakier than this allows. In the end, The Mexican‘s revenge is that because of the star power of Brad and Julia, it will no doubt be a big hit and many people will pay money to sit through its two hours.