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The Mexican Reminds Us What We Lost When We Lost James Gandolfini

The Mexican is one of those movies that I know I saw, but I have zero memory of. This is the sum total of my reaction to somebody mentioning the film: Oh, yeah, James Gandolfini was amazing in that!

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But ask me how he was amazing? Who exactly his character was? Ask me what the plot even was? Zilch. All I can recall is Gandolfini being soft-spoken and sweet. So recently I watched it again to jog my memory… and still, the sum total of my reaction is this: James Gandolfini was amazing in that!

Now I remember the plot, though…kind of. Plot isn’t this movie’s strongest selling point. Oddly, neither are its two stars. Which is entirely crazy because The Mexican features two actors you’ve probably heard of: Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. WHAT? Yes. Two of the biggest movie stars on the planet, together, playing lovers, in a romantic comedy. A casting coup if ever there was one!

And yet The Mexican didn’t deliver, at least not the way you’d expect, and not the way its marketers had promised. When the film came out in 2001, Julia Roberts had been a supernova for a decade and had just won an Oscar for Erin Brockovich. Brad Pitt was in the Fight Club/Snatch period of his career and was still married to Jennifer Aniston, which essentially made him an A-list star on the screen AND in the tabloids. Put Pitt and Roberts together, and you expect that the movie sets would catch on fire from the sheer heat of their combined charisma.

So what does The Mexican do? It keeps the two apart for most of the movie! That is not a romantic comedy, my friends. (Don’t even talk to me about Sleepless in Seattle, which did the same damn thing and yet is inexplicably beloved by romantics everywhere. I’ll take Joe Versus the Volcano any day–at least Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan actually interact in that movie!)

Their chemistry was wasted in Sleepless in Seattle, don’t @ me!

ANYWAY. Roberts and Pitt play Sam and Jerry, a couple who supposedly deeply love one another but can’t seem to go more than two minutes without fighting. We meet Jerry first, and even though he’s being threatened by the mobster he works for, he’s distracted by Sam’s needs and complains to the mob boss about his overbearing girlfriend. When we meet Sam, we see why Jerry is complaining–his life is literally in danger and she’s throwing couples therapy terms at him while refusing to acknowledge his predicament. The fighting is supposed to be charming, but because the romantic chemistry hasn’t had time to grow, it just comes off as toxic.

I would usually insert a feminist complaint here about how Sam is written as a self-involved harridan, and how the movie gives us Jerry’s side of the story first to make sure we’re seeing their relationship through his point of view. And maybe that’s true. But it’s Julia Roberts. She can take any stereotypical underwritten female and make the character’s inner warmth and brilliance shine through. As soon as she’s free of Jerry, Sam is delightful, as per usual with Roberts’s roles.

Soon enough Jerry is off on a trip to Mexico, where he has been ordered to pick up a fabled gun called The Mexican and return it to his mob boss’s boss, Margolese. Sam, for her part, is off on a road trip to Las Vegas, where she plans to remain without Jerry. The plot of the movie, such as it is, is these two road trips. The title of the movie comes from Jerry’s trip–he’s after The Mexican, he gets it, loses it, gets it again, and generally makes a fool of himself to every Mexican citizen he meets and also to his mobster cohort. The best parts of Jerry’s fairly pedestrian road trip are the vicious, ball-obsessed dog who comes with his rental car and the various tellings of the legend of The Mexican, all of which differ in some way just like a proper legend should.

The far more interesting plot, however, is Sam’s road trip. At a rest stop, she’s attacked by a hit man in the bathroom. Right away, that hit man is offed by another hit man: Leroy, played by James Gandolfini. Leroy’s been sent by Margolese to hold Sam hostage until Jerry returns with The Mexican. Sam, upon learning this, is immediately distracted from her dangerous situation by her anger at stupid Jerry and his stupid mob job for ruining her life even after she dumped him. She complains non-stop to Leroy, and he responds not by putting duct tape over her mouth and sticking her in the trunk, but rather by engaging with her anger and talking her through her relationship woes like a therapist.

Let’s take a moment to remember who James Gandolfini was at the time this movie came out: He was Tony Soprano. Yes, of course, Gandolfini had done other things and nearly always got good reviews. But to pretty much everyone in America, he was known for The Sopranos, for being the sociopathic-yet-introspective mob boss who terrorized our Sunday nights. Tony Soprano was a masterpiece, and between Gandolfini’s performance of that mesmerizing monster and the Hollywood stereotype of Italian-Americans as mafioso thugs, viewers were primed for more of the same when he showed up in The Mexican.

Instead, Leroy the hit man is a thoughtful, sensitive soul who recites with reverence the tale of how when he kills people who have never experienced love, they’re more afraid to die than those who have. He gently nudges Sam into admitting that she and Jerry do share a true love. He helps her see her own role in the toxic cycle of their relationship without ever letting Jerry off the hook for being an idiot (which he is). Leroy is gentle with Sam even though they both know he may have to kill her, and she responds by recognizing who he really is–a gay man who yearns to know love himself.

That Tony Soprano could be compassionate, insightful, and gay was shocking to audiences. It was a treat. We all knew James Gandolfini could act, but we didn’t realize he could act. The nuances he brought to this role–so similar on paper to a Sopranos character–floored everyone who saw the film and made clear once and for all that Gandolfini was a star. Put him in a movie with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, and he steals the whole thing not by trying to outshine them but simply by making his performance the most real.

It’s not their fault, but Roberts and Pitt are so famous that all their performances have an aspect of “playing themselves.” The way Jack Nicholson is always Jack Nicholson, and (as he’s grown older) Al Pacino is always Al Pacino. You’re not just watching Jerry the bumbling mob errand boy, you’re watching Brad Pitt as a bumbling mob errand boy. You’re watching Julia Roberts as a neurotic girlfriend. Some stars have a hard time escaping their own wattage. James Gandolfini demonstrated here that he didn’t have that problem. He ignored the baggage of being Tony Soprano and allowed Leroy to be a completely fresh character. It’s a joy to watch his developing relationship—and unexpected bond–with Sam.

Sam and Leroy pick up a traveling postal worker named Frank and party with him, with Sam ultimately pushing Leroy to take a chance on romance and hook up with Frank. He does, and the two share a night of sex…but more important to Leroy is that they bonded. Frank offered a glimpse at understanding and forgiveness toward Leroy’s violent life. It allows Leroy to imagine a whole different future, which he and Sam discuss over breakfast as Frank sleeps.

Alas, violence follows them and Frank is killed, devastating both Sam and Leroy. The two continue on together, ultimately making their way to Mexico to meet up with Jerry. Once Pitt and Roberts are back on screen together, the energy of the film slowly ebbs. They start bickering as soon as they meet, and it pretty much continues on that way. Sam’s friendship with Leroy takes a backseat to the silly mob/gun plot, and it’s a shame, and the movie suffers. That’s why if you read the film’s reviews that came out at the time, this was the take pretty much across the board: James Gandolfini was amazing in that!

There’s a scene in Mexico with all three main characters in the car–Jerry driving, Sam angrily staring out the passenger window, and Leroy wedged in between them, suffering through yet another of their fights. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the movie itself–two superstars NOT being romantic in their romantic comedy, with a simple TV actor as the relatable, watchable, human center of it all.

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Written By

Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She's the managing editor of The Gist.

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