"You haven't seen war," boasts the trailer, "until you've seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino." What hubris! Still, no one excited about seeing Inglourious Basterds is likely to labor any misapprehensions about Tarantino suddenly turning into a sentimental Spielberg or a philosophical Terrence Malick on the subject, much less a Tarkovsky or an Elem Klimov. Basterds is slightly indebted to another war movie genre, but really, there's no blaming this marvelous mess on anyone but Tarantino, his grotty imagination and defining self-indulgence.
The genre in question thrived in the 1970s, when manly movies like Patton and A Bridge Too Far seemed to say that war was hell, but also kind of rad—ah, the good-old days of lantern-jawed heroes and one-sided body counts, loquacious death scenes and righteous payback. German soldiers were all inhuman Nazis by association: a flimsy but necessary justification for the atavistic viewing pleasure of Kraut-blasting carnage. No weepy Saving Private Ryan treacle on the soundtrack, either: crisp, brassy martial scores and rat-a-tat snare tattoos carried the day.
Basterds reprises all of these thematic, visual and musical elements to varying degrees of perversity. Parts of it come off like episodic send-ups of The Dirty Dozen and its ilk; the title itself is a cop from an Italian Dirty Dozen knock-off. The title sequence, scored by Ennio Morricone, all but telegraphs the director's apparent intention to make the war movie that Sergio Leone should have made.
Granted, the first of five "chapters" nearly fools you into thinking Tarantino might treat the Holocaust as something besides a plot convenience. The second chapter also hints at straightforward genre exercise, introducing Brad Pitt as an affably brutal Southern sergeant with a handpicked squad of Jewish-American commandos tasked with sowing fear behind enemy lines (their Jewishness has no bearing on the proceedings whatsoever; even Saving Private Ryan squeezed in a little Nazi-baiting by a Jewish private).
Before long, though, it's clear that Tarantino is no more to be bound by genre rules than he is by Holocaust pieties or Greatest Generation platitudes. Basterds is blasphemous to Spielbergian mythologizing, more profane than anything dreamt of by Samuel Fuller: gleefully violent, mindlessly amoral and just out to have a good time.
And it is, man, it is—a really, really good time. There's plenty of trademark cartoon torture and violence (Pitt and company always leave one hapless Nazi alive to spread the fear, carving a swastika into his forehead to underline the point). Every performance is joyfully juicy, particularly Pitt and the German-born Christoph Waltz as a conniving SS officer—a character you absolutely love to hate. Surprisingly slow-moving, Basterds gives you ample time to do so.
If anyone's having anything less than a cracking good time, it's Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, a Jewish refugee-turned-cinema operator who must endure the humiliation of hosting the premiere of the Nazi propaganda movie, based on the exploits of the war hero (Goodbye Lenin's Daniel Brühl) who keeps pestering her for a date. In a movie thick with over-the-top hamboning, the smoky, sultry Laurent provides the necessary counterweight. And even she gets to kick a little Kraut arsch in the end.
Naturally, it wouldn't be Tarantino without a couple of self-gratifying movie moments. The director's (generally irritating) obsession with encoding undergraduate film studies—yes, I know, he's a self-taught filmmaker—is, yes, for once, actually interesting. Basterds is packed with references to pre-war German cinema, the most spectacular artifact of which is an enormous color poster for G.W. Pabst's The White Hell of Pitz-Palü plastered to a hoarding on Shosanna's cinema. With this single inclusion, Tarantino leapfrogs Guy Maddin to become the contemporary director who has done the most to bring a fabulous long-lost German genre, the so-called "mountain picture," to modern audiences.
Just as tantalizing is his gloss on German wartime film production under the strict control of Josef Goebbels, who used his power both to coerce actresses into sex (shown in hilarious cutaway here) and distract the German people en masse from a losing war with huge, outlandish, grossly expensive movie spectacles. (I have several of these titles in my collection as well, including versions of Titanic and The Adventures of Baron von Munchhausen.)
These are film-geek sideshows, of course—but what's a Tarantino movie if not full of geeky sideshows? Ultimately Basterds is a rambling shaggy-dog tale that outstays its welcome by about half an hour—about the same length of time it frequently ditches Pitt and company to focus on the less-interesting Shosanna plot. As an action movie, it's maddening. As entertainment, it's huge. As a war movie, well—do you trust the name on the marquee?
Inglourious Basterds continues at the Carmike 10.