There’s a fine line between camp and class, between low-brow and high-brow. Have you ever been that person who’s constantly defending a movie or TV show or album that everybody else seems to despise? With “Back Off, Jerk,” Hidden Track writers tell the rest of the universe to wake up and stop hatin’.
This week, Stephen Mills defends the 2001 action-adventure comedy The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.
In March of 2001, I was a closeted gay boy finishing up my senior year of high school in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana. College and the possibility of a new life were so close, yet so far away. To pass the time, I spent much of my high school days in the movie theater with my best friend. We’d go see movie after movie after movie (good or bad), and we’d then discuss them over dinner at a chain restaurant or in the basement of my parents’ house (Clearly, we were very popular). We were actually complete opposites. He was straight. I was closeted. He loved sports. I loved writing poems. He was conservative. I was liberal. But somehow we bonded over pop culture and our shared ability to defend our opinions — no matter how different they might have been.
We normally took turns picking the movie, so I know it was my choice to go see The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, that March. Looking back, it’s clear that Pitt’s good looks had a lot to do with my selection, even though I was two years away from admitting my sexuality. Regardless, I fell for the movie that most critics and audiences did not.
The Mexican hit theaters on March 2, 2001, which was just weeks before Julia Roberts would take home her Oscar for Erin Brockovich. For starring two of Hollywood’s biggest and most respected actors, the movie was not well received. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a 56% rating with critics and only a 44% rating with audiences, and on IMDB, it has managed a score of only 6 out of 10. These are not the strongest numbers for Pitt or Roberts (both have only had a few career missteps).
The Mexican didn’t deliver the movie everyone was expecting or wanting, which is partly what makes it stand out to me. I’m a sucker for the unexpected. Roberts and Pitt could have had their pick of scripts, but something made them go for this one. In fact, the entire cast is an impressive list of accomplished actors, including the late James Gandolfini, J. K. Simmons, and Gene Hackman. On paper, this sounds like a sure fire hit, so what went wrong?
The movie is a crime-adventure comedy, and it’s actually original. It bucks expectations in almost every way possible, which might be the cause of its lack of success. The filmmakers don’t appear to have been interested in spoon-feeding a cheesy romantic comedy starring Pitt and Roberts (though that would probably have been more successful). To the surprise of many, Roberts and Pitt only spend about 30 of the 123-minute film on screen together. Not a typical Hollywood move.
The Mexican tells the story of Jerry (Pitt), who, through a minor car accident, sends a mob guy (Hackman) to jail (He has a body in his trunk). Due to this, Jerry is forced into a criminal ring, where he must work off the jail term of the man he accidentally sent to prison. This all happens before the movie begins. We pickup with Jerry being sent on his final job, which is to retrieve a cursed pistol called “The Mexican” from Mexico. His girlfriend, Samantha or Sam (Roberts), is less than thrilled that Jerry’s “jobs” keep interfering with their lives. This last job is interfering with their plan to move to Las Vegas. Jerry’s argument is that he’ll be killed if he doesn’t do it.
In their first scene together, Roberts screams from a balcony while hurling clothes and shoes at Pitt on the street below. Roberts and Pitt both deliver in this scene that is full of contemporary relationship psycho-babble (They go to a “group”). Before calling for a “time out,” Roberts yells down: “All right. Jerry, I want you to acknowledge that my needs mean nothing to you and you’re a selfish prick and a liar.” By the end of the scene, she breaks up with him, and they both go their separates ways for the majority of the movie.
As things continue, it’s apparent that Jerry is not a great criminal, and Pitt plays this part to perfection. For being so damn pretty, Pitt has proven himself to be a damn good actor. In The Mexican, he plays the boyish, funny, and sometimes not-so-bright Jerry with great ease. He’s a believable “stupid American,” which is evident in a humorous scene at the car rental place where Jerry wants a more “authentic” car to drive than the brand new Chrysler he is offered and where we learn he doesn’t know Spanish.
In Mexico, it becomes clear that more than one person is after this pistol and that Jerry’s final job isn’t going to be an easy one (wouldn’t be much of a movie, if it was). The pistol changes hands many times, and as it does the history and story behind the pistol alters. Each person he comes in contact with has a different version of the story. In part, the movie plays with the idea of truth and legend. The story and the characters aren’t always what they first seem to be.
The other half of the movie follows Roberts’ Sam as she gets pulled back into Jerry’s criminal world. On her way to Las Vegas in her bright green Volkswagen Beetle, she is kidnapped by a gay hitman “Leroy” (Gandolfini). Word has gotten back that Jerry might be “fucking up” his last job, so the plan is whoever controls the girl controls Jerry. Of course, the hitman doesn’t know that Sam and Jerry broke up.
Sam is anything but a damsel in distress, and her anger at Jerry only adds fuel to the situation (and comedy). Roberts delivers even the clichéd lines with enough gusto to keep your attention. Her character is a humorous commentary on our culture’s view on relationships and self-help tactics. Before getting kidnapped, Sam is sitting in a food court in the mall, reading and highlighting a book titled Men Who Can’t Love while Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” plays on the speaker.
Playing against our expectations, Sam and “Leroy” bond and spend much of the movie discussing relationships and when “enough is enough.” But this is not done in a stereotypical straight girl/gay guy way. In fact, the movie very carefully avoids most gay stereotypes that have become so commonplace in Hollywood. Gandolfini’s “Leroy” feels like a real character and is not there only to drive the plot of the straight characters. He even has his own romantic moment with a hitchhiking postal worker midway through the movie (Of course, that doesn’t end so well).
The comedy in the film is spliced with actual violence and not simply “the good guys win and the bad guys die.” There are some surprises, including the revelation that “Leroy” isn’t who we think he is, or at the end when Sam is the one holding the gun and she actually chooses to shoot it instead of the letting the “bad guy” go or letting one of the men handle the situation.
In the end, it seems people’s reactions to this movie were due to their expectations. This is not a standard Julia Roberts movie or even a standard Brad Pitt movie (To his credit, he’s often made interesting and unexpected film choices). That’s not to say the film is perfect — it could be tighter in places and probably a bit shorter. But its overall originality still holds up 12 years later. It’s a fun movie that just might deserve a second shot (pun intended).