Goin' South

Together, but separate: Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in <i>The Mexican</i>

Together, but separate: Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in The Mexican

Hombre, you've been warned. When it comes to Americans looking for love, Mexico has hardly been our land of opportunity. It's a place where the señoritas won't get jiggy with some gringo's salsa-stumped booty. It was where the Beat Generation used to leave their wives by the roadside, never to return. For director Gore Verbinski, the local reputation must have been so bad that even when making a romantic comedy like The Mexican, he couldn't bear to put his two star-crossed lovers in the same south-of-the-border scene for more than two minutes.

The homely Mexican begins with one of the only times that headliners Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts share the screen during the entire film: Jerry Walbach (Pitt) has just admitted to his girlfriend Samantha (Roberts) that he would rather spend the night with the voluptuous barrel of a gun than with her. Against Samantha's wishes, Jerry has promised a mobster that he'll smuggle a valuable antique pistol from Mexico back to the States. In retaliation, Samantha takes the Thelma & Louise-style trip they had planned and drives it solo, joy riding to Las Vegas by herself. But a hit man named Leroy (The Sopranos' James Gandolfini) finds her there and takes her hostage, hoping to retrieve the pistol from Jerry. As Samantha, Leroy, and Jerry all search for each other back and forth across immigration lines, the Mexican locals can't resist telling them a good legend or two involving the pistol and two young lovers not unlike themselves.

Yet every time a local tells the story, all the classic trademarks of travelogue romance are curiously missing. There are no backward glances from a passing bus, no romantic souvenirs, no reserved vagabonds resembling Ralph Fiennes. What you do get is a lot of pillow talk that could put you to sleep, and the vague suspicion that Jerry and Samantha have never met before. If The Mexican had employed the awkward distance between its protagonists as a source of humor, one would think that Pitt and Roberts could have used their sparkle-toothed grins to create sexual tension of momentous proportions. The physical and emotional distance between Roberts and Pitt might tempt you to think, Ah--now there's a way to film a live story that's as steamy and estranged as the Mexican terrain! Alas, in actuality it has all the sex appeal of an aging Vicente Fox.

As we never really get to witness any intimacy between the protagonists, even the prospect of reuniting Jerry and Samantha in an Alamo-type shootout is far from titillating. Or is it the prospect of reuniting Brad and Julia? I get confused. Let's face it: Neither Pitt nor Roberts is much of an actor. This isn't to say that Pitt didn't live up to playing a masculine idol in Fight Club, or that Roberts didn't quite pull off acting as America's sweetheart in Notting Hill. I just mean that these are their best roles precisely because the roles were playing them--or rather, the public personas they represented at the time. But every time in The Mexican that Pitt shakes his head in a 12 Monkeys spasm or, Roberts emits a gasping, Pretty Woman laugh, it's not acting, it's self-referential caricature. And every time Entertainment Tonight hints that they were, ahem, secretly sipping from each other's tequila glasses during filming, their lack of onscreen chemistry becomes that much more of an embarrassment.