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 movies—or rather, two parallel star vehicles.
Samantha (Roberts) and Jerry (Brad Pitt) wake up together and split cute in their first scene—a 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.”
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 scenario—with gangsters whining about their retirement packages and downsizing—starts 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 violent—bogging 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 travesty—insulting 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 quo—but, as with Operation Mongoose, does anyone really care?
The Walter Reade’s current Chinese series ends Thursday with a single screening of Jia Zhangke’s remarkable Platform, a superbly detached three-hour epic that, spanning the 1980s, meditates on the changes of that period through the mutation of the propaganda-performing Fenyang Peasant Culture Group into the equally cheesy All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band.
The 31-year-old Jia, who is an independent rather than studio filmmaker, has a strong visual style (scrupulous compositions based on long fixed-camera ensemble takes) and a powerful set of thematic concerns (the spiritual confusion of contemporary China, caught between the outmoded materialism of the Maoist era and its market-driven successor), as well as a vivid sense of place (dusty, inland Shanxi province). Following on his 1997 debut, Xiao Wu, the semidocumentary story of a supremely diffident Fenyang pickpocket who fails to adapt to China’s new liberal economy, Platform puts Jia at the forefront of current Chinese cinema.
Elliptical yet concrete, Platform is a laconic tale of lackadaisical love and even more haphazard entertainment, as played out in a series of unheated factory halls and outdoor courtyards. The environment is at once dreary and exotic, prisonlike and vast. The group tours throughout the Chinese interior; the Great Wall, casually used as a place to rehearse or tryst, is a recurring visual motif. Geographic markers are matched by the precise fashion changes in hairstyle and dress that Jia uses to indicate the passage of time. Platform—which takes its title from a Chinese hit rock song of the ’80s—is pop art as history. Paeans to Chairman Mao are supplanted by Taiwanese rock anthems (“Gen-Gen-Genghis Khan”); communal screenings of the ’50s Hindi musical Awaara give way to “marital aid” sex education videos; braids become perms; suddenly, one notices color TV.
With its objective, almost clinical viewpoint and lovingly chosen, generally bleak locations, Platform looks like a documentary. But, perhaps influenced by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster, Jia finds many subtle ways to transform the world into a stage. The play of the proscenium against the filmmaker’s clear Bazinian taste for unmediated reality is fascinating: When one character is poised to disappear forever from the narrative, Jia allows her the privileged moment of a solo dance number performed in the privacy of her room.
Jia also uses a distanced camera placement for maximum context. There’s a quietly magnificent, deeply melancholy shot of the hapless Electronic Band, listlessly pelted with garbage by one of its first audiences, performing by the side of a highway on the banks of the Yangtze, boats full of Panasonics floating past. The penultimate image, held long enough for the full weight of quotidian despair to infect the audience, is the epitome of the film’s odyssey from kindergarten collectivity to failed privatization.
Platform has had only one previous public screening here, at the last New York Film Festival. As the movie has been recently (and pointlessly) cut by nearly 40 minutes, mainly shortening the performance sequences, this could be the last opportunity to see a major work by a striking new talent in its original form.