'The Mexican' at 20: How the can't-miss pairing of Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt missed

383845 01: Actors Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts act in a scene in Dream Works Pictures
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On paper, it seemed like a surefire hit: A crime drama that would unite league-of-their-own superstars Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt for the first time.

But 20 years ago today, on March 2, 2001, The Mexican misfired. Here's the story of how Roberts and Pitt came together for a blockbuster that wasn't.

The two actors were at the top of their game at the turn of the century. Roberts was on the cusp of winning her first Oscar for her fiery turn in Erin Brockovich after a five-year string of rom-com hits (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride). Pitt was making his mark in the cult hits Snatch (2000) and Fight Club (1999) after scoring critical and commercial success with 12 Monkeys, Se7en and True Romance.

Off-screen friends, the duo had been looking for a joint project for at least a decade. When Roberts came across J.H. Wyman’s script — a Tarantino-esque tale (as so many were in the late '90s/early '00s) about a low-level mob operative sent to retrieve a cursed pistol from south of the border and his girlfriend who's abducted by a gay hitman — she convinced Pitt that this was it. Both actors agreed to take pay cuts for a shooting budget of $35 million, a sum far less than their combined usual per-movie rates at the time.

Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts at the premiere of 'The Mexican' at the National Theater in Los Angeles, Ca. 2/23/01.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images).
Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts at the premiere of The Mexican'at the National Theater in Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2001. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images).

Their combined star power instantly elevated the material from what would have been a down-and-dirty indie to a prestige project produced and distributed by DreamWorks Pictures, the fledgling studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. DreamWorks was in the midst of making an emphatic statement on the industry, winning the Best Picture Oscar for three years straight (American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind).

The studio looked in-house to fill the director’s chair, tapping Gore Verbinski, whose feature debut, Mouse Hunt, had become DreamWorks's first family hit in 1997. Rounding out the cast were James Gandolfini as the aforementioned gay hitman (hired at Roberts's urging and only two years into his career-defining turn as Tony Soprano), future Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, Bob Balaban and, in a surprise cameo, Gene Hackman.

But despite the high-powered creative pedigree, there were signs of trouble. While the film was called The Mexican, all its top-billed ensemble members were white. The Nation's B. Ruby Rich eventually called out the film's "racist imagery" of Mexico. The final budget grew to $57 million.

The film's early-March release date, considered more of a dumping ground than a prime slot, may have also signaled that DreamWorks was not expecting neither a box-office blockbuster nor an Oscar contender — and the studio just had one that was both with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

Still, Roberts and Pitt were bullish while making the press rounds.

"Something has to be really good to get me to leave my house, as opposed to just pretty good," Roberts told a roundtable of reporters at the film's Los Angeles press junket. (As a college journalist for Arizona State University's State Press Magazine, this correspondent somehow wrangled a seat at that table.)

"I just thought it was incredibly original," Roberts said of The Mexican. "I was sort of taken by the ability to take every genre known to film and put it into one script and have it make sense and be interesting." The editors at Wikipedia would agree with the first part: Its synopsis reads, oddly, "Its plot is a mixture of different genres."

Audiences were intrigued by the pairing, and initially turned out at cineplexes. The Mexican topped the box office in its opening weekend, with $20.1 million, ultimately tallying $147.8 million worldwide, generating a decent return on DreamWorks's investment. But audiences weren't satisfied: The film earned only a C-plus grade from the industry ranker CinemaScore.

Neither were critics. "Star power doesn't save The Mexican" was a common refrain. The film drew mostly middling to poor reviews that pointed out similar complaints: A film that heavily played up the fact it was uniting two of the biggest movie stars in the world, entwined in a romantic (if fraught) relationship, keeps them separated for most of the two-hour runtime. Pitt, encountering one misadventure after the next trying to escape Mexico, and Roberts, abducted-slash-protected by the increasingly affable Gandolfini on their own road trip, are practically in separate timelines for the bulk of the film.

It actually ended up being the chemistry and snappy dialogue between Roberts and the scene-stealing late Sopranos star Gandolfini that gave the film its brightest moments.

Roberts and Pitt would reunite again that same fall in the much more successful Ocean's Eleven — a project Pitt teased at the time of The Mexican press junket by promising, "This thing is cool!" — but the actors were part of a much larger leading ensemble (same for its sequel Ocean's Twelve).

Twenty years later, The Mexican remains the pair's only true co-starring effort. You can't really accuse it of being a terrible failure — it's just not one Roberts would probably leave the house for again.

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