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Questions to ponder on leaving the theater after seeing "The Mexican":

(1) Is it the worst movie that Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt will ever be in? It's their first together and frankly if they ever do another in tandem, I can't imagine it being any worse.

(2) How was this movie even greenlighted in the first place?

(3) How did it corral between $35-$40 million worth of star flesh?

(4) Is it not-so-subtly racist? Does it present the most stereotypical Mexicans since Sam Peckinpah was riding the high country?

(5) Is it a harbinger of big name mediocrities to come from studios that crash movies into production at top speed in case of a strike?

(6) Will it hurt dear Julia's chances - hitherto considered close to a lock - to win an Oscar for "Erin Brockovich"?

You're on your own with some of these (Nos. 1, 2 and 3, for instance). I can make very educated guesses, but I doubt whether my guesses will be all that much more valid than yours.

The biggest - and the truly burning - question at this moment is No. 6. And the answer, I think, is a thundering and cheery "no." If you, along with a few million other people, think that all those megawatts of personality are ripe for recognition, fear not. In a weird way, it might even help her.

It is an odd but ineluctable fact of Hollywood that into the life of every megastar, an occasional boatload of garbage must fall. As sure as night follows day and Conan follows Leno, the biggest and most glittering stars in the cloudland firmament must occasionally festoon screen sewage.

To know that Julia Roberts - all $20 million salary worth of her - is, at this stage, capable of being roped into such ungainly and preposterous whimsy is, I think, almost endearing. It probably humanizes her out among the palm trees, in fact, and makes her "Erin Brockovich" march to the podium seem less like the armed and mechanical juggernaut it might otherwise seem to be.

In fact, she and James Gandolfini are all that separate "The Mexican" from unwatchability. She and Pitt play a warring couple who split over the fate of an antique pistol (which is what the title refers to). Pitt is sent to Mexico by his boss, an imprisoned mobster, to find it and have "comic" misadventures. She splits in a huff and goes to Vegas to become a croupier. On the way, she's kidnapped by a sensitive gay hitman played by Gandolfini, the reigning coloratura of all "The Sopranos."

If the whole movie, in fact, had been about Roberts and Gandolfini, they might have had something - nothing to write your Aunt Beulah about, but something.

What they have, instead, is a couple hours of nothing relieved by so much personality from Roberts and Gandolfini that they're worth watching in spite of everything (and, in this case, everything is a lot).

At some point, all of this oafish whimsy and high-minded ethnic slurring must have seemed like a wonderful idea on paper but I tend to doubt it. In other words, the answer to question No. 2 above must be that screenwriter J.H. Wyman has some relationship to the people at Dreamworks that isn't otherwise apparent. By the time director Gore Vrebinski ("Mouse Hunt," Michael Jordan's "100-foot hoop" Nike commercial) was added to the mix, the knell of impending doom probably began to echo.

Still, a movie with Julia, Brad, a gay kidnapping hitman, and a mangy dog whose chew toy is a deflated football must have seemed like a lark at some stage. The very idea of pairing Roberts and Pitt is, on the face of it, a smashing one. The movie's beauty quotient is off the charts and Roberts' personality is, in theory, justification enough for any movie.

In addition, Pitt can be awfully funny when he wants to be. Take a look at "Snatch" by Madonna's main man Guy Ritchie, lest you doubt it.

He gets half the movie here and, by my most-liberal calculation, not a single laugh. For that matter, he can only manage just one smile of fond indulgence. (He's nothing if not game. He does a very passable "Hogan's Hero" impression. In another movie, it might have been pretty funny.)

You're on notice how weak all of this is going to be very early on when you hear the musical score by Alan Silverstri, which is Herb Alpert Meets Ennio Morricone. By the time Pitt is in Mexico dodging dead cows in the middle of the road and "comic" auto accidents, you know you're in for a tough couple of hours.

Things improve a tad when Gandolfini shows up, kidnaps Roberts and commandeers her chartreuse Volkswagen Beetle. He, too, is just after the antique gun, he assures her. "I'm just here to regulate funkiness," he tells her, one of the few worthy combinations of line and line reading in the entire movie.

And regulate he does. Much funkiness is put down in this movie by means of rather abrupt and much-too-frivolous gun play.

He advises her on her floundering relationship with Pitt, reveals he's gay, and, along the way, takes up with a postal worker he picks up at a truck stop, a fellow who likes to joke "guns don't kill people. Postal workers do."

Me? I'd have asked that the thing be rewritten to eliminate Pitt altogether and send Roberts and Gandolfini down the Yellow Brick Road to lord-knows-where.

Probably not Mexico, though. Whatever else their problems are south of the border, I don't think they deserve this movie - what with its ethnic stereotypes mixed unconvincingly with high-horsed hypocrisy.

Maybe they should have taken a cue from the "South Park" boys and retitled it "The Canadian."

Yes, that's it.

Much better.

MOVIE Review

The Mexican * 1/2 (Out of four)

Rated: PG-13

Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini in a movie about relationship problems and the search for an antique pistol. Directed by Gore Vrebinski.

Opening Friday in area theaters.

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