But audiences may be surprised by the lack of romance between Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt

By Lori Reese
Updated March 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
The Mexican: Merrick Morton

The new Julia Roberts / Brad Pitt movie, ”The Mexican,” has enough prerelease ammunition to shoot ”Hannibal” out of its three week position atop the movie chart. Analysts expect the R rated comic adventure about a cursed gun to debut with a $20 million plus gross — largely because audiences are eager to see America’s sweetheart and People Magazine’s two time Sexiest Man Alive together onscreen for the first time. ”It’s a dream star pairing,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. ”Men love Julia Roberts — women like her, too. Women love Brad Pitt, and men at least don’t mind him.

However, there’s one aspect of ”The Mexican” that the trailers don’t reveal: Roberts and Pitt aren’t actually on screen together for very long. For most of the film, their characters aren’t even in the same country. DreamWorks SKG, the movie’s distributor, is highlighting a handful of sweetheart moments in TV ads and trailers. But instead of a romantic comedy — like Roberts’ trademark hits ”Notting Hill” or ”Runaway Bride” — audiences will find a twisty, violent caper plot that more closely resembles Pitt’s most recent film, ”Snatch.” In ”The Mexican,” Pitt plays a bumbling Mafia bagman who is sent south of the border to retrieve a gun, called The Mexican, while his girlfriend, Roberts, is kidnapped by a sensitive hit man (”The Sopranos”’ James Gandolfini).

Even if fans end up being surprised by the lack of romance, analysts say DreamWorks is smart to focus their marketing on the Pitt – Roberts connection. (DreamWorks declined to comment on the strategy.) ”There aren’t a lot of scenes with [Pitt and Roberts] together, and when they do share scenes, they’re fighting the whole time,” says Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source. ”But lovey dovey [ads] are what’s going to sell. Roberts’ forte is romantic comedy — that’s what people want to see her in. People want that chemistry.”

Bucksbaum predicts that ”The Mexican” — which cost only $35 million to make because the A list stars agreed to cut their salaries — will go on to earn at least $50 million. One reason: The pre- Oscar season is usually sluggish for the box office, so a film featuring big name draws — and opening against weak competition — can score big. ”The most important thing is to get people into seats the first weekend,” says Dan Marks, vice president of ACNielsen. ”The public will decide on their own after they see it.”

So how will ”The Mexican” fare in its second week? Pretty well, according to Dergarabedian, who points out that its only new competition beginning March 9 will come from the teen targeted ”Get Over It” and the Robert De Niro thriller ”15 Minutes.” ”There’s really nothing else like ‘The Mexican’ out there,” he says. Marks agrees: ”People don’t sit at home and say, ‘Oh, this is a slow month at the box office, we better not go to the movies. They say, ‘What’s playing? Who’s in it?”’ The winning answer: Julia and Brad.