Tense and unyielding even in her warmth, Julia Roberts is an actress who projects self-sufficiency. Her most successful recent romantic turn came when she played a "star" in Notting Hill, opposite the pliantly worshipful Hugh Grant. If nothing else, The Mexican does address the costar problem. This intermittently appealing, fundamentally dysfunctional action-comedy about an intermittently appealing, fundamentally dysfunctional couple is actually two different moviesor rather, two parallel star vehicles.
Samantha (Roberts) and Jerry (Brad Pitt) wake up together and split cute in their first scenea sort of reverse balcony number, replete with screamed psychobabble and incredulous histrionics. Then, for the next 90 minutes or so, it's strictly His and Hers. The Pitt movie concerns Jerry's trip to Mexico, at the behest of his incompetent gangster employers, in search of the movie's eponymous macguffin: a handcrafted antique pistol gun with a guilty past. From the requisite cantina del terror to a cactus country shoot-out, the Pitt flick slides by on the star's still-boyish charm and knack for physical comedy. More endearing klutz than Anglo übermensch, his Jerry manages to cope with all manner of adversarial or no comprende natives. Indeed, even while he gives the impression of Dubya abroad, it's his opponent whom Jerry manages to shoot in the foot.
Meanwhile, the more challenging Roberts movie: The fiery Samantha (whose main occupation is apparently being Julia Roberts) drives from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where, thanks to her connection to Jerry, she is first caught in some sort of hit-man crossfire in a casino toilet and then, tottering around on her wedgies, abducted by a cat who calls himself Leroy (Sopranos don James Gandolfini). Whereas the Pitt flick is a straightforward, if somewhat sleepy, slapstick shoot-'em-up, Roberts's is more the emotional roller coaster. Beginning as a feisty gal-in-danger story, it turns increasingly touchy-feely as Samantha passes her time in captivity by analyzing her relationship: "Jerry's a taker, I'm a giver."
Written and directed by
Douglas McGrath and Peter Askin
A Paramount Classics release
Opens March 9
Written and directed by Jia Zhangke
Walter Reade March 8
In apt preparation for the Oscar she seems destined to win for her shrill and pushed-up turn in Erin Brockovich, Roberts pads her social-work résumé: Shrewdly applying the lessons of daytime talk shows, Samantha deduces that the bearish Leroy, a creature of sidelong glances and sly, adenoidal confession, is living in his own sexual soap opera. After Samantha helps to fix him up, the sunshine of the Roberts smile is positively blinding. (Her altruism is the reverse of what, in its sure command of current jargon, J.H. Wyman's script calls a "blame-shift.")
Perfect date bait or splitting headache? The Mexican starts snappy. Gore Verbinski, who made his TV commercial rep with the Budweiser frogs and his directorial debut with the cartoonish Mouse Hunt, has an iconic comic style; the movie means to be edgy but cute. However, it negotiates its switchback mood changes with increasing difficulty. The breezy, convoluted scenariowith gangsters whining about their retirement packages and downsizingstarts to resemble second-rate Elmore Leonard. Garden-variety stupid, the macguffin is treated with a bizarre Spielbergian sense of wonder. Life is cheap but nothing has consequence.
"You don't have to understand the words to hear their pain," Samantha explains of the Mexican telenovela that is holding her spellbound. Nevertheless, The Mexican turns talkier even as it grows more violentbogging down in explication and dog jokes so severely that it ultimately feels a half hour too long. Winding up in a Wild Bunch pueblo, the backstory's final installment involves what, in western-speak, used to be called a Mexican standoff.
Sam Peckinpah famously described The Wild Bunch as a movie that showed what happens "when killers go to Mexico." The Mexican is more a case of what happens when killjoys do. (Nothing is more violent than the angry barrage of clichés with which Samantha greets her feckless lover.) Seeking to be that elusive thing, an old-fashioned screwball comedy with a modern body count, The Mexican is still squabbling with itself as it departs into the sunset.
A more self-consciously neoimperialist farce, Company Man attempts to do for the CIA's Bay of Pigs fiasco and the absurd anti-Castro shenanigans of the Kennedy brothers' follow-up Operation Mongoose what the scurrilously enjoyable Dick did for Watergate with infinitely more farcical verve. This low-budget movie, barely more than a succession of skits written and directed by Douglas McGrath and Peter Askin, is almost bracingly unfunny. More than insiderish in its historical references, Company Man proudly presents itself as some sort of underdog caper. Unfortunately, all is vanity. The acharismatic McGrath himself stars as Quimp, an haute Connecticut underachiever who finagles his way into the CIA: "I know a little Russian. . . . He works at our country club."
An 81-minute running time aside, the best to be said for Company Man is that it's an equal-opportunity travestyinsulting JFK, Castro, and (presciently, considering its 1999 copyright date) the Bush family alike. Cringing beneath an outsized beret, Woody Allen appears as a CIA station chief; John Turturro plays the agency's main operative as a human chest-thump. Scarcely less strenuous in inhabiting the role of Mrs. Quimp, Sigourney Weaver seems prepared to shoulder the cinematic burden by herself, while melanin-challenged Alan Cumming is severely miscast even as a caricature of ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista. The whole thing reeks of agent quid pro quobut, as with Operation Mongoose, does anyone really care?
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