If ever there were two actors who could be tempted to dominate a film, it would be Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. For they are, without question, the two biggest stars of their young generation, commanding $10-$20 million paychecks while often trading on their good looks and (overly) large personas. Give me a Brad Pitt movie, and I'll give you at least one washboard ab shot (not necessarily a bad thing). Ditto Roberts and at least one kooky, bee-stung-lips-spreading smile.
Along the way, no doubt, they have shown their acting chops, with Pitt balancing his looks with intensity and Roberts using the sheer force of her presence. But something has happened to the both of them in their climb to the top of the Hollywood mountain: They're maturing as actors, and realizing they don't have to overwhelm their characters for a film to be great. Of course, anyone who saw Roberts shout her way through Erin Brockovich (and into an Oscar nomination) might argue otherwise, but that Oscar nod is but one indication that Roberts is also learning to trust her material, and director.
And the material -- J.H. Wyman's script -- is probably one major reason why these two heavyweights took massive paycuts to co-star in The Mexican, the second effort by little-known director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt). In this comic road adventure (times two), Pitt and Roberts have found a comfortable pocket in which they can let their natural talents unfold. James Gandolfini (HBO's The Sopranos) takes the pressure off both by providing the film's moral center with a completely relaxed performance. The result is a film that delights virtually from beginning to end.
But back to the script. More than anything a story of fate, The Mexican is a subtle nod to the devastating sweetness of love, how we are inextricably tied to the ones we love whether we like it or not. So it goes for Jerry (Pitt) and Samantha (Roberts), a dysfunctional couple so drowning in therapy-speak that when Jerry (a low-level hood of an errand boy) tries to turn the tide in an argument Samantha blurts, "You're BLAME-shifting!"
As Samantha succinctly points out, she's ruled by her emotions, Jerry by his environment. It's one crappy environment, too. Through a convoluted chain of events, not only has Jerry been drafted by a mid-level crime boss, but keeps screwing up just enough to stay in his debt. His plea that this is one last assignment -- retrieving a mysterious, legendary (and the titular) pistol from south of the border -- is lost on Samantha, who heads to Vegas with Nancy Sinatra on the stereo and a fresh start on her brain.
But fate has other ideas for both. Jerry's attempt at retrieving the pistol -- a simple chore, no? -- is met with the same result as his other assignments. Without doing anything, he screws it up, bringing the wrath of more than his boss. And as Jerry scrambles around Mexico looking for his lost gun, Samantha is abducted by a hitman (Gandolfini) who tries to use her as an insurance policy for Jerry to get the job done. "I'm just here to regulate funkiness," he tells her after dispensing of a rival hitman, in one of the film's funnier lines.
As often happens in your basic Hollywood hostage situation (at least the comedic ones), Samantha and her abductor strike up an immediate friendship. First, the archetypal thug plays relationship counselor to Samantha. When she whines about Jerry's many faults and the lack of certainty, he replies, "You know, some are under the impression you choose who you love." Samantha eventually returns the favor in kind when her abductor reveals his own emotional baggage.
And so it is an entirely different set-up that provides the film's chemistry; not that between Pitt and Roberts, who share minimal actual screen time, but between their characters and their storylines. More accurately, it is Jerry's battle with his ludicrous situation (environment), and Roberts and her abductor's simple truths (emotions) that power this two-driver star vehicle. In the end, the only thing that can bring them back together (and no question, we're dying for them to get together) is the right answer to the question: If two people love each other but just can't seem to get it together, when is enough enough? Fate answers that question, as well as the mystery of The Mexican.
Verbinski and Wyman provide plenty of other surprises: Mexican characters who are much wiser than we gringos give them credit for being (including a running gag about a rental car), a legend that bends and shapes to the will of the storyteller, and a supporting cast that fills in the corners (including a neat final-act cameo). To give away the rest would be silly. After all, you've got Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. What more do you need, right?