Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts share top billing -- but not much else -- in "The Mexican," a south-of-the-border comic drama that's considerably less than the sum of its potent parts. Though the rough-edged pretty boy and the matinee queen with the million-watt smile could be the Dream Team of box-office couples, this project mostly has them starring in their own competing movies. And pricey star power be damned: Both are outshined by the excellent James Gandolfini, who does an emotionally complex, very funny variation on his Mafia role on TV's "The Sopranos."
When we first see Pitt's and Roberts' characters -- a goofball mob peon and all-around irresponsible guy named Jerry, and his neurotic, demanding girlfriend Samantha -- they're waking up in a Los Angeles apartment. She opens her eyes, smiling broadly and gazing at a picture of the two of them. He sits on the side of the bed, looking rather dazed.
This scene of sweet reverie, one of only two the duo will enjoy together before the end of the film, lasts but a few moments. Shortly thereafter, Jerry returns from the "office," where he's learned of an offer he can't refuse: a quick trip to Mexico to track down a lost, extremely valuable 19th-century pistol called "The Mexican." And then it's time for bickering, which we soon learn is this couple's normal mode of communication. He attempts to explain his dire circumstances; she responds by tossing his belongings onto the pavement.
Their relationship, in other words, doesn't seem like much of a refuge to begin with. So there's really little at stake when the squabbling lovers are threatened with permanent separation. Nevertheless, "The Mexican" goes on its merry way. Jerry, the stereotypical ugly American, finds himself penniless and clueless in Mexico, where he manages to get a man killed and lose the pistol in record time. Sam, meanwhile, is targeted by one gun-carrying tough (Sherman Augustus) and rescued by another one, a beefy bad guy who calls himself Leroy (Gandolfini).
The film looks as if it may have suffered in the editing process, and each of its storylines is of rather limited merit. Overdoing it a bit as a screw-up, Pitt stumbles and bumbles his way across the dusty terrain of Mexico -- driving around in an El Camino, ordering tequila at a seedy bar, riding a donkey, and slipping deeper and deeper into the muck of an ancient, oft-told tale. In a series of silent-movie-like flashbacks (with each recollection varying according to its source, a la "Rashomon"), we learn the history of the pistol. A talented gunsmith. designed it as a gift -- a method of marrying his only daughter to the son of a rich landowner. The girl, though, was in love with the gunsmith's assistant. The saga ended tragically. And now Jerry's gangster boss (Gene Hackman, in a cameo) wants to possess the cursed pistol.
Roberts is transparently wacky ("I need sunshine to grow," she says at one point), but hits the right notes on occasion as Sam begins to form a tight emotional bond with her kidnapper. Leroy, it turns out, is a hit man with a heart of gold, a hired assassin whose personal life is hardly what we would expect. Accompanied by a friendly postman (Michael Cerveris) they meet in a diner, the odd couple take a road trip to Las Vegas that's the liveliest, most tightly scripted portion of the movie. Otherwise, "The Mexican" is a whimsical but oddly unsatisfying piece of work.