The Roberts, Pitt Pairing: Was It Worth It?

Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican , from a screenplay by J.H. Wyman, wastes a great deal of acting talent trying to combine two ill-matched genres, the noisy sitcom psychobabble comedy and the even noisier caper movie, curiously endowed with road-rage car crashes without car chases. Still, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts were reportedly so anxious to work together, and so impressed by the script, that they practically imposed themselves on the producers, thus turning a low-budget would-be sleeper into a big-star project that is not allowed the luxury of flopping in obscurity.

What is supposedly clever about The Mexican is that the plot keeps Mr. Pitt and Ms. Roberts apart for most of the movie, thus eliminating the possibility of any sustained chemistry between the two screen icons. And when they are finally reunited at the end of the movie, they immediately start screaming at each other with the same take-no-prisoners ferocity with which they set up the original misunderstanding. Ms. Roberts is the louder and shriller offender of the two by going over the top, and then some, with her ear-splitting frenzy. But then, Ms. Roberts is the only woman in an all-male world of gangsters, hitmen, fixers, and assorted Mexican flotsam and jetsam, so she may have assumed that she had to compensate by yelling louder than all the bad boys combined.

Mr. Pitt, on the other hand, could afford to let the noise come to him on occasion, with the result that he seems relatively restrained in a part that is not written nearly funny enough nor charming enough for him to get more deeply involved on the decibel level. At one point in his brief encounter with Ms. Roberts he seems to be laying back in amused complicity, letting his awesome good looks do his acting for him, while Ms. Roberts is howling unattractively like a banshee. The blame for an Oscar nominee’s excesses must be placed at least partly on Mr. Verbinski’s inexpert direction, and partly on Mr. Wyman’s stridently one-note dialogue.

As for the title of the film, “the Mexican” is an ornate antique pistol with a history and a curse attached to it. Mr. Pitt’s Jerry Welbach is ordered by mobster Nayman (Bob Balaban) to go to Mexico and bring back the presumably lethal heirloom along with its temporary owner, who we eventually learn is the grandson of imprisoned mobster boss Arnold Margolese (an unbilled Gene Hackman). That is not the only thing we learn eventually, but why should I depress you with a plethora of cumbersome and contrived plot details? For the moment, let me assure you that Jerry is not a messenger for gangsters by choice. It seems that our absent-minded hero got Margolese in prison by crashing into his car. When the police came to the scene of the accident, they found a live body stashed in the trunk of the gangster’s vehicle. So off to prison he went, and Jerry was forced into his service as his errand boy, much to the discomfiture of Jerry’s girlfriend Samantha (Ms. Roberts). She wants him to go with her to Las Vegas, where she hopes to get work as a croupier. When he tells her that the mobsters will kill him if he doesn’t perform this one last assignment, she is not impressed. He said, she said, blah blah blah, and off they go–he to Mexico and she to Vegas.

The trip to Vegas turns out to have more substance than the trip to Mexico because of a hitman who calls himself Leroy (James Gandolfini) and kidnaps Samantha, or Sam as she is thereafter called. Hitmen have become a dime a dozen in recent movies, and more often than not a cue to unrestrained hilarity. Mr. Gandolfini, of The Sopranos , brings not only additional star power to The Mexican , but also a treasure trove of analsy and humor from his sessions with a shrink and the Oedipal revelations about his monstrous mother that ensue. But his Leroy breaks new ground in The Mexican as a troubled gay hitman in a traditionally macho profession. Sam deduces his sexual orientation when he answers too quickly that he has no intention of raping her. From that point on, Sam and Leroy launch into long seminars on their problems with relationships, be they straight or gay. This may be the section of the script that appealed to Ms. Roberts, but this insertion of coy sitcom humor tends to make Sam much too supercilious a character.

Overall, The Mexican is not without a certain visual pizzazz that is being confused more and more with a coherent visual style. An example is the ambitious gag borrowed from an old Roadrunner-type cartoon in which a sheriff riding a horse in pursuit of a bad man comes to a desert intersection and looks in one direction at an infinitely empty road, and then in the opposite direction at the same emptiness. He then spurs his horse for a fast gallop across the intersection, only to be flattened by a speeding car out of nowhere. Mr. Verbinski doesn’t get a laugh with his live-action version of this cartoon gag, first because Jerry and his car avoid being flattened, and second because the timing is botched by an excessive number of large vehicles pouring by.

In the course of the denouement, a key character simply disappears without any explanation and a decisive gun fight is resolved illogically. High marks go to Mr. Gandolfini and Mr. Balaban for keeping the action on its violent path as long as they can without its lapsing into facetiousness, but the last scenes of Jerry and Sam driving off noisily into the sunset hardly seem worth it.

Movies and Misdemeanors

Kieron Walsh’s When Brendan Met Trudy , from a screenplay by Roddy Doyle, begins brightly in a Dublin gutter with a very funny takeoff on the corpse-in-the-swimming-pool opening of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). This is no mere directorial conceit without a follow-through, inasmuch as we gradually learn that our hero, Brendan (Peter McDonald), is a dedicated movie buff out of sync with all the philistines around him–and that includes Trudy (Flora Montgomery), who considers it a satisfying night out if the movie is in color and doesn’t have Emma Thompson in the cast.

The odd-couple pairing is launched in a pub, with Trudy taking the initiative with shy, introverted Brendan, whose only other release from the bleak routine of teaching English and history in a Dublin high school where he is taunted by the students is his singing in a church choir. When Brendan discovers that Trudy is a nocturnal burglar, he is only slightly shocked, and finds her criminal behavior no reason to give up the fabulous sex she provides.

Screenwriter Roddy Doyle is no stranger to the raffish side of Dublin, having contributed to the screenplays of Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991), Stephen Frears’ The Snapper (1993), and Mr. Frears’ The Van (1996), which were adaptations of his novels, known as the Barrytown Trilogy. When Brendan Meets Trudy represents a shift for Mr. Doyle from the impoverished working class north of Dublin to the less colorful and more comfortable middle-class precincts of the South. Except for one bohemian interlude with a Nigerian refugee championed by Brendan against the Dublin police–an act of political defiance and correctness that reinstates him with Trudy after one of their frequent spats–Mr. Walsh directs his first feature film with a touch that, if not exactly Lubitschean light, is not particularly heavy. He resists, for example, the temptation to make Brendan’s classroom rascals complete monsters, and he modulates the romantic interludes with Brendan and Trudy so as not to disrupt the flow of the narrative. Best of all, he displays a keen eye for the ironic lessons taught us by the classic movies. Sometimes, however, Brendan has to face the truth of his less-than-masterful role in his courtship of Trudy when compared with the manly way John Wayne sweeps Maureen O’Hara into his arms in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Yet there are moments when Brendan fully identifies with the loneliness felt by Wayne at the end of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).

There are jokes as well at the expense of the extremes of movie-buffdom, usually with invented Polish obfuscations such as Dariusz Tomaszewsi’s imaginary masterpiece Kooti Goes to Warsaw . At least, I think it’s imaginary–with Brendan and Mr. Doyle, one cannot be entirely sure. Even Brendan’s difficulties with his ultra-bourgeois sister and her family never leave a lasting sting, even when Trudy is sufficiently enraged to demand that Brendan assist her in burglarizing his sister’s home.

Yet, ironically, when Trudy is finally caught and imprisoned, it is all because of Brendan’s pig-headed resistance to computers in high school and his insistence that he and Trudy steal them together. She is nailed and he is not, but everything ends happily even so in this pleasant entertainment which has hooked me, at least, with its astute cinephilia. Brendan loves movies almost as much as I do.

A Renoir Revue

Ten classic 30’s films by the late, great Jean Renoir are being presented at B.A.M. Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-2770) from March 5 through April 30. For 10 Mondays in March and April, Renoir will reign supreme on the local movie scene. The series opens March 5 with La Chienne (1931) and continues with Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), A Day in the Country (1936), The Lower Depths (1936), La Marseillaise (1938), Rules of the Game (1939), The Human Beast (1938) and Grand Illusion (1937).

Opinions may differ on Renoir’s career in America during the German occupation of France, or his post-World War II films in France and India. But of his films in France before World War II, there is little doubt of their overwhelming importance in the history of world cinema. Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion remain favorites of many cineastes, and A Day in the Country is not far behind.