Whose dimples are cuter, Brad Pitt’s or Julia Roberts’? This is only one of many conundrums–conundra?–raised by The Mexican, their new film. And there is another: Just what is the plural of “conundrum”? It’s worth asking because, surrounding The Mexican, there are many. They never stop.

As any devotee of E! channel knows, The Mexican is the long-awaited pairing of America’s putative Sweetheart with its Sexiest Man Alive. The wait, however, continues through much of the movie, until one is fairly numb with anticipation: After a prologue where we see them together, the stars are not reunited until the final scenes. The satisfaction of one’s curiosity regarding the relative cuteness of their dimples, then, is tantalizingly deferred.

We begin in sunny Los Angeles. Morning. Brad and Julia, abed, slowly wake. They share the bed, but observe a tasteful distance from one another. Brad gazes wistfully into the distance. His brow is furrowed. There is trouble in paradise. Julia stirs. She gazes dreamily into the opposite direction. Then she remembers: She is Julia, and Brad is beside her. The toothily radiant smile that intermittently wracks her face now spreads itself out. Dimples proliferate. This smile is of such dimension that it looks as if it should cause pain to display it.

Naturally, Julia’s joy is short-lived. Not only won’t Brad marry her, because he fears commitment, but he has been roped into pulling off one last caper for the gangland bigwig whose employ he has been trying to leave. On learning of these circumstances, Julia flies into a rage. In a scene you think will never end, she throws Brad’s clothes at him from a balcony down to the parking lot where he stands fidgeting and protesting ineffectually. Julia screeches recriminations at him all the while. She appears to be stuck in Erin Brockovich mode. She wears high-heeled clogs, and gets comic mileage from the splay-toed, knock-kneed, flail-armed walk the footwear necessitates. Her tarty skirts and trailer-trash halter tops are purest Wal-Mart, and the tops dependably expose a pert belly button that, if navels counted as dimples, would increase the number of dimples on view in the film by at least one.

Men fear commitment. This is only one of the many bits of universally shared knowledge that the movie draws upon. Here’s another: When two people really love each other, nothing must keep them apart. Further, it is fun to watch glamorous Hollywood types portray lowlifes. Gay people come in all shapes and sizes, though the dire fates they meet might be said to undermine this liberating diversity. Mexicans, by contrast, are somewhat more limited in their typology. Guns have potent appeal. Romance and violence are by no means incompatible.

Some might question these truths, but the movie is too smug to raise any doubts. It’s depressingly representative of contemporary Hollywood in its combination of the two apparently incompatible characteristics of smugness and hysteria. The merger of these qualities in movies like The Mexican reveals currents within both the industry and the culture at large. These movies are products of a powerful culture shot through with terror, and of a thriving, money-drenched industry beset with a paralyzing awareness of its own economic precariousness. Only if these claims are true, I think, can this marriage of smugness and hysteria, complacency and anxiety, make any sense.

Brad travels to Mexico. His mission is to retrieve a fabled pistol, sought by competing factions, that figures in various legends. In a trio of fanciful set-pieces, we are privy to these legends. The set-pieces show us the Mexico of racist lore, where earthy lovers gambol amid sun-baked adobe, while hatchet-faced hombres with sweat-soaked bandito-whiskers sneeringly plot their doom, all in tones of scorched sepia. (Recently, the progressive-seeming Traffic recounted the same myths, right down to the sepia.) Exotic spasms of banjo music authenticate the proceedings. One would have to go back to Ishtar for a film that parades another culture so shamefully. But Ishtar reveled in its own badness, and thereby exposed the crises of 1980s Hollywood. The Mexican exposes nothing but Julia’s navel and Brad’s six-pack. Everything else, it tries to hide. Mexico-as-plot-device: For all the sensitivity this movie brings to its portrayal of our neighbors to the south, it might as well be Zorro.

Meanwhile, Julia continues rehearsing her role of Olive Oyl in a remake of Popeye directed by John Waters. She tools about stateside in her piss-green VW Beetle, the unwitting object of warring kidnappers’ hostile attentions. The usual restroom showdown follows, guns aimed mutually in all directions. Then, kidnapper, downed, spits blood. Julia’s terror is evidently meant to have its comic side, despite the spitting of the blood. On the whole, the tone cannot be called consistent, but perhaps this is supposed to be the novelty. The kidnapper triumphant in the showdown is a sensitive lug, James Gandolfini (a Soprano!), whose relationship to Julia turns out to be the movie’s emotional focus.

Julia notes with slightly resentful satisfaction that Gandolfini has failed to bed her. Surprise!–he’s gay. With weirdly vicarious pleasure, Julia pushes him into bed with a trick who conveniently cruises him at a truck-stop, and off they go. Gandolfini handcuffs Julia tenderly before obliging both her and, in a discreetly off-screen bedroom, the trick. (The trick, by the way, has a dimple in his chin. But he does not count.)

Tragedy strikes, the wedding’s off, the sensitive lug, bruised by experience, turns less sensitive, and maybe even less gay. Finally, finally, Julia and Brad reunite. Shards of screwball comedy resurface. But we’ve come a long way since Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Or even, heaven help us, since Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Probably there was never a Paradise, but there has certainly been a Fall.

In the wake of the reunion, opportunities to compare dimples multiply. Julia’s dimples, when they appear, transform her entire face. It is hard to say whether she is the Audrey Hepburn of our day or Hepburn was the Julia Roberts of her own. Brad’s dimples are twinkly but much more laconic. Perhaps he could be the Robert Redford of our day, if only Redford himself would have the decency to abdicate. This greater restraint, in any case, is in keeping with the proper masculinity that can be triumphantly restored, now that Gandolfini and the trick are out of the way. Despite this triumph, Julia and Brad never kiss. They do not embrace. If this reticence is meant to be a mark of dignity, it is the only such mark to deface the dingy surface that is all there is to this movie.

Up to this point, there has been much prattle concerning relationships–how darn hard they are! But now there are car chases. These are, once again, comical. It should not surprise us, when people are reduced to bodies defined as dimples, abs and cuteness of mannerism, that their relationships should fade.

The Mexican is little more than a very bad movie, much like all the other recent very bad movies. Is it possible they could have, cumulatively, anything but a numbing effect? One might resist this effect, perhaps, by trumping up anger, except that the films are so trivial. So all one can do is to count the dimples, and tally the conundra. An unbilled star who pops up at the end graces, here, his worst film since (I’ll keep his secret, but here’s a clue) Lucky Lady, a 1975 movie that prefigured the current farrago by mixing violence and sentimentality. Why does this star, even unbilled, do this? What were any of these people thinking? In the end, of course, this plurality may boil down to a single conundrum, all too well gleaned: Are American movies really doomed? EndBlock