For better and for worse—sometimes both at once—Quentin Tarantino always does things his own way. A notoriously bad speller, he’s succeeded in forcing journalists and editors to call his latest film Inglourious Basterds, apparently as some kind of gleeful private joke. And while he spent the better part of a decade describing this project, long in gestation, as his version of The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone—a badass, action-heavy, dudes-on-a-mission war flick—it turns out that he’s actually made ... well, a Tarantino movie. Its multi-chapter narrative doesn’t really conform to any familiar war-movie prototype. Apart from Brad Pitt, whose role is no larger than anybody else’s, most of the sprawling ensemble cast ranges from little-known to who’s-that? At least 75 percent of the nonstop dialogue is in subtitled French, German or Italian. And the whole thing is a bizarrely touching exercise in vicarious wish-fulfillment, in which a Gentile filmmaker fashions an alternative history that allows the Jews to kick Hitler’s ass, with a little help from the magic of Tarantino’s beloved cinema.
Of course, the marketing folks have been working overtime to bury all of that. Watch any of the trailers or TV commercials and you’ll get the impression that the entire movie is about Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) and his crew of Semitic “basterds” (including Hostel director Eli Roth and The Office’s B.J. Novak) beating the crap out of Nazi goons. In fact, the Americans play a surprisingly small role, often disappearing for entire reels. We spend considerably more time with Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French-Jewish girl plotting revenge for her family’s murder at the hands of Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a silken-tongued (in several languages) reptile renowned as “The Jew Hunter.” Nor is there much in the way of kinetic mayhem, for that matter. Inglourious Basterds may well be the first war movie since The Wannsee Conference to consist almost entirely of people just sitting at a table, talking.
Granted, Tarantino has always been able to bring the rococo dialogue, and he’s even more adept at providing a showcase for little-known or long-forgotten actors. The Austrian-born Waltz, who deservedly won a prize at Cannes last May, walks away with the movie from its superbly tense 25-minute-long opening scene, in which Col. Landa interrogates a French dairy farmer who’s hiding a terrified family (including the young Shoshanna) beneath his floorboards. And there are a handful of other entertaining gabfests throughout, many of them touching on film-buff trivia. Indeed, the entire picture amounts to an absurd valentine to the movies—many of the major characters were actors, screenwriters or film critics in civilian life, and behave as if they’re well aware that they’re the product of some mad cinephile’s overheated imagination.
You have to admire Tarantino’s audacity. Here’s the rub, though: In terms of its tone, its rhythms, its moment-to-moment creativity and imagination and inventiveness, Inglourious Basterds is far and away the most ordinary film he’s ever made. There’s an uncharacteristic lack of energy throughout, whether we’re watching Aldo and his Jewish terror squad threaten a German officer with death by Louisville Slugger or the British High Command work up a jolly good plot to kill Hitler, Goebbels and others at the premiere of a new propaganda film (to be held at a theater run by Shoshanna). Apart from that bravura opening, the giddy highs you expect from Tarantino’s movies never materialize—Basterds is solidly engaging but stuck in second gear, functioning like the longest B-movie programmer of all time. I admire its fantasy-empowerment moxie, but it’s the first QT joint I have no desire whatsoever to see again.