Can you take a movie seriously that doesn’t seem to take itself seriously? Even as it pretends to be a serious movie?
The above sentences could be used to begin a review of any movie directed by Quentin Tarantino. I happen to think Tarantino is a decent enough director. That he hasn’t done anything really good since Pulp Fiction doesn’t necessarily mean he’s untalented. The man shows flashes of brilliance. The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds is gripping and dramatic. It is positively Hitchcockian. And the film continues to draw you in as it proceeds. Sure, there is the requisite superfluous, over-the-top Tarantino violence and blood, but, hey, it’s a Tarantino film so you shrug and keep watching. What did you expect?
The movie revolves around a small guerilla group of American Jewish soldiers/Nazi hunters during World War II – led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt – called the Basterds. (No word is ever given as to why the word is misspelled, nor, I understand, has word ever been given by Tarantino himself.) “We're gonna be doin' one thing and one thing only... killin' Nazis,” explains Raine to his men. And they do it effectively, using terror tactics that include scalping their victims. One particularly vile yet charming Nazi is Colonel Hans Landa (played superbly by Christoph Waltz who garnered the Oscar for the role), referred to by his reputation-inspired nickname “the Jew Hunter.” A Jewish woman, Shosanna Dreyfus (played by the beautiful Melanie Laurent), whose family was killed by Landa’s henchmen during the early days of the French occupation (this happens during the aforementioned masterful opening scene) is now the owner of a cinema in Paris. When Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels decides to premier a Nazi film in the cinema, Shosanna begins making plans to even the score. Raine’s Basterds know about the film’s premier, too, as well as the list of upper-echelon Nazis who will be attending, including the Führer himself. With all the rotten eggs in one basket, the objective is simple: “blow up the basket.” Colonel Landa stays in the mix, too, as things begin rolling towards a classic movie climax.
To say that the film plays fast and loose with the facts of history is more than an understatement. But this brings us to the take-things-seriously request inherent in the film. Should we, or shouldn’t we? I imagine if I ever see the film again, I will refrain from doing so and probably enjoy it more. Knowing that the whole thing is another over-the-top, self-indulgence from the guy who practically invented the genre will help make the film more palatable. But there were serious scenes including a dramatic Mexican stand-off in the basement of a French café. And the film is of the most serious of subjects. And knowing it was up for best picture and seeing the determined and sincere performances by Waltz and Laurent (Pitt’s was ordinary) made me feel obliged to take Tarantino’s film seriously. But the seriousness blows up with the climax and so, therefore, did my interest.
Is it still an enjoyable watch? Somewhat. But what happens in a film that betrays its own sense of gravitas is that one becomes very quickly unattached to any character therein. I didn’t care for Raine or the Basterds and I certainly didn’t care for Landa from the start. But in Shosanna we had somebody to rally behind. Unfortunately, she becomes a victim of the self-indulgence too. Tarantino doesn’t seem to care about the characters or the plot, so why should we? As a series of scenes, the film sometimes works, and works well. But the cohesiveness between them that propels a film towards greatness is carelessly overlooked by Tarantino’s tongue-in-cheek approach. One wonders what another director - a serious director - might have done with a similar plot.
There's an underlying intelligence to the universe (call it God, if you must) and it is our purpose to give this intelligence form and meaning. --G.S. Payne