Brad Pitt likes to play goofballs. In The Mexican, Pitt co-stars as Jerry, a hapless criminal and diffident bag man who must repay one last debt before he can accede to the demands that he quit the business from girlfriend Samantha (Julia Roberts), an always-agitated, therapy-speak bitch. Sent to Mexico to claim a priceless antique pistol cloaked in romantic lore, Jerry finds himself surrounded by greed and double-crosses, and James Gandolfini shows up as a hit man and appropriates Roberts when Pitt fouls up.
Director Gore Verbinski shows himself as much more than a capable director of computer generated mice (as in Mousehunt). It's a lovely little screwball thriller with a truly sturdy script (by J. H. Wyman). Its physical cost is reported at $15 million, and the resultant off-kilter comedy and gritty visual palette reveal a knowing nostalgia for eccentric American films of the 1970s.
Pitt and Roberts wanted to work together (and are in Steven Soderbergh's new Ocean's 11). With DreamWorks' decision to make the film on a budget, Verbinski proceeded with a small-budget script, but the studio's Jeffrey Katzenberg (who was at Disney at the time of Pretty Woman) suggested approaching Roberts.
"This thing came out of nowhere," a grinning Pitt says. "It was a delightful little script, and [then there's] the idea of us going into this little low-budget, hand-held two-takes onto-the-next kind of movie, which was kind of exciting for us.
"It's unusual that egos and paychecks are sacrificed nowadays to make a film with more than one large star possible. Ocean's 11, which [Julia and I are] going to do, is going for that Great Escape cast, Soderbergh and [George] Clooney's idea. It's been so difficult to get people. I was surprised by the people who couldn't work out scheduling and backends. It's not the spirit we were going for in this thing [either]."
The movie opens in situ and out-the-door with their breakup -- "Jerry, you're a f--ing moron!" is one of Samantha's first lines. Pitt says he likes the bang-up opening. "I like that. We've all been in relationships gone awry, and I think it starts at a beautiful jumping-off point, where we're just at that peak where we're not seeing eye to eye. She's got issues, he's got his issues. Everyone's locked into their position. You get enough in that first scene about their past, where they are at that moment, going to 'group,' group therapy. I thought it was perfect."
While most shared scenes are between Gandolfini and Roberts, Pitt says Gandolfini is "one of those great guys to watch process. I found the same thing about Benicio Del Toro, [he] has to find a meaning for every line. I think that he gives such specific characters, his breakdown is so intensive. He's the man. He's the king. Julia and I are starting a church, the church of Gandolfini."
While he plays a not-so-bright, well-meaning doofus, Pitt himself is a little more charming here than amid the punch-drunk grunginess of Fight Club or the marble-mouthed accent of Snatch. "That was kind of the point. We can all do this guy, that guy who does the looks. The idea of the guy who doesn't have his shit together really kind of cracked me up." He cites Tom Cruise's character in Jerry Maguire as an influence. "He really went that direction."
Pitt was an advertising major at the University of Missouri's journalism school, and he admits admiration for those who practice the trade he almost went into. "It's a science the way they break it down. Actually, I'm kind of torn because it's a science of getting people in the seats. It's a science of manipulation in a sense. If a movie's good, it'll stick around. But again, I'm not the guy putting up the money."
So does he consider the relative failure or success of projects like Fight Club or Snatch? "No, again, I'm not coming from the monetary side. I'm more interested in a movie that's going to stick around. It's gonna have some kind of impact on some level that'll have legs. I'm not as concerned with the big hit that's gonna disappear and we're never going to hear from again."
Above all, Pitt doesn't want to be bored by his work. "It's exploration for me. Sometimes[characters] work, sometimes they don't. This one, I just wanted to get into the guy who's defensive, didn't have it all together. The most fun for me is when I find something I didn't know I was capable of. The most miserable time is when I don't."