Basterds disappoints despite big name casting

Late August is normally the ghetto for movies to be unceremoniously dumped before the awards season of autumn and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday rush. As such, it seems strange that the Weinstein Company would release Quentin Tarantino’s latest film in this slot. Is it a sign of the lack of confidence from the Weinstein Company in the film’s commercial prospects? It seems quite possible considering the relative commercial failure of Tarantino’s last film, the second half of the double feature Grindhouse.

Tarantino’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is his tendency to overstuff his films with a wide variety of genres that run the gamut of film history. Within Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino combines the spaghetti western with the “World War II men on a mission” genre, with the former asserting its presence much more than the advertising would lead one to believe.

The titular Basterds, led by Brad Pitt’s scene-chewing Lt. Aldo Raine, do not even make an appearance until twenty minutes into the film. Instead, the film opens with one single twenty minute scene, involving a German Colonel (Christoph Waltz) known as the “Jew Hunter” searching a French house suspected of harboring fugitive Jews.

Tarantino highlights one of the very best qualities of spaghetti westerns within this scene, which is the slow burning tension present when the possibility of violence could strike at any moment. Decades of Nazi film depiction showing them as cold, merciless monsters are cleverly inverted with the Colonel, whose malevolent charm slowly draws out the information he seeks from a French farmer.

Few filmmakers could get away with what Tarantino does here, where a simple request for a glass of milk ratchets up the stakes as opposed to defusing the tension. It is wonderfully written and executed and is the best sequence in the entire film.

When the Nazi-scalping Basterds finally appear in the next sequence (the film is divided into chapters, much like Kill Bill), they appear to have come from another movie. While the casting of Brad Pitt was likely a commercial concession made to enhance the marketability of the film, it does the film no service.

Pitt’s performance is far from merely skimming the edge of over-acting, as he nearly drives the entire film off a cliff. With his uneven performance, the tone of the film shifts too frequently. The great B-movies are great precisely because they don’t act like they are B-movies. While enjoyable on a visceral level, this second sequence feels utterly disconnected from the first.

Despite this back-and-forth between these two tendencies that marks the two-hour and thirty-minute film, Inglourious Basterds remains completely engaging. This is helped by the non-star actors cast in crucial roles, a skill that Tarantino has not lost. In particular, Christoph Waltz shines, with a performance that will likely garner him an Oscar nomination. Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa is a twisted Sherlock Holmes, with his reasoning always finding the clues he seeks. They are then presented to the guilty parties with an oily charm worthy of great villains.

It is Landa’s slippery morals that highlight the deceitful and self-serving nature of this war, with the Nazi cleansing of the Jews working against any idealistic notions as to why the Third Reich justified their desire to hold dominion over the world.

This leads to a large number of German Nazis feeling the need to turn against their high command, among them Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a famous German actress working secretly with the Allies to help execute a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in a place that will come as no surprise considering how self-reflective the film is.

The glimmers of greatness in Inglourious Basterds are enough to carry the momentum of the plot through to its shocking conclusion, as the very artifice of the plot is exposed with events that make no concession to the historical record. In any other movie, this sort of thing would be met with derision, but in a Tarantino film it is pretty much expected.

In the end, if you have enjoyed Tarantino films in the past, you will likely enjoy this one. Those who are not film buffs can safely skip this one, particularly Brad Pitt fans, as Pitt’s role is nowhere near as involved as the advertising leads us to believe. Inglourious Basterds is a mess, but at least it is an ambitious mess.

FILM

Inglourious Basterds

GENRE: Drama, Adventure

STARRING: Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt

DIRECTOR: Quentin Tarantino

RATING: R

RELEASED: August 21, 2009

OUR TAKE: *** 1/2 (out of 5)