Inglourious Basterds is, in every way, much like Tarantino’s last film Death Proof, a piece of utter self-indulgence that you can’t help but enjoy.
Basterds is only sort of the story of a group of U.S. Jewish soldiers air-dropped into Nazi-occupied France to kick some Nazi tuchus. The actual story is that of several soldiers, and a European Jewish orphan, who plan to destroy the upper echelons of the Nazi regime when they attend an upcoming premiere of a Nazi-produced film.
Yes, Tarantino is so self-indulgent that he’s made a movie about German movies…and spends a surprising amount of time — peppered throughout the movie — detailing to us the inner-workings of German filmmaking and the people behind it (he must have felt he was educating the masses).
The story opens by introducing us to a man who fancies himself somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes to the Nazi party (a comparison punctuated in a fun sight gag). This Nazi colonel’s nickname is “The Jew Hunter.” And this hunt which opens the film leaves us with the female orphan who will grow up to own the movie theater where the aforementioned Nazi film will premiere.
Various machinations bring that film to the orphaned woman’s theater — she now lives life as a French woman, her Jewishness a burdensome secret. As those machinations occur, the Basterds, led by a southern-twanged Brad Pitt, learn of the premiere and, having killed a large number of Nazis the last several months (or days perhaps — hard to tell), see this as the coup de grace.
The film bills itself as something in the mould of The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven — a group of toughguys who each have a specialty are going to pull off some sort of militaristic miracle against unbeatable odds. But that’s not the movie at all.
There’s very little Brad Pitt, firstly. No Pitt means very little is seen of the Basterds (only one scene of the Inglourious Half-Dozen doesn’t include him). Which is a shame, because his performance deserved more time, as do his supporting players. Although the few action scenes which exist are generally exciting and interesting, we hardly get to see the chaos the Basterds have wrought. Mostly, we see it through their reputation as reported by others. And while that works tonally, and shouldn’t be excised, it does not work if your film is meant to be The Dirty Dozen. We want to actually see them get dirty. By the dozens.
Our antagonist, Col. Hans Lander, the Jew Hunter, is particularly fun to watch and to loathe. Clearly, Christoph Waltz enjoyed every syllable of his unlikable character. Tarantino did a bang-up job making a good old-fashioned screen villain.
What doesn’t work for the story, aside from the lack of Basterds, is what takes up the rest of the movie’s time: the story of the orphan girl played sensuously by Melanie Laurent. While her tale intersects with that of the Basterds (although only in the climax), her character and experiences add nothing to what is supposedly our main plot. That is, the Basterds learn of the location of the movie premiere without her; they devise a plan to blow up the attending Nazis — which include Goring, Goebbels and the man about whom the term “Hitler Mustache” was coined, ol’ Adolf himself — on their own, and, ultimately, their plan is shown to succeed or fail without her help. At most, she could be considered convenient either to us (as a break from the violence) or to the Basterds (because it’s her theater at which the Nazi’s shall gather), but not likely both.
Another problem were the scenes of supposed tension. I happened to catch Tarantino discuss in a TV interview how much he enjoyed “wringing out the tension” in many scenes here. But Tarantino so clearly loves each of his characters and enjoys giving them unusual, even kitschy, things to say, that there is little time for tension to build. The dialogue isn’t written for tension, it’s written for laughs and winks. Thus he was unsuccessful in creating any tense moments in all but two scenes (the one which opens the film and another where Pitt finally faces the Jew Hunter in a quiet room). The laughs however are original and, as always in a Tarantino film, come out of the most unusual moments. That is something I will never tire of.
However, Tarantino is clearly a big fan of Tarantino films. I felt Kill Bill 2, Death Proof, and Basterds all spent unnecessary amounts of time wallowing in the cool dialogue that made Tarantino so well-known. But, while I enjoy his sense of humor, I tire of the endless strings of wordplay and indulgences in pop-culture (to say nothing of the chapter headings always preceded by fades to black) that are devised at the detriment of pushing the story along.
The other issue is the film’s ending which works more as U.S. WWII propaganda than it does a reasonable ending. Had the rest of the film had a propaganda-ish tone, the ending would have fit well. While the film never portends to be a documentary, it does seem to follow history somewhat, especially in the details about Goebbels, his filmmaking, and when and where WWII battles were taking place. The film’s end veers so much from the truth that it’s silly. And while this is definitely a war movie with a sense of humor…it was never silly. That is, until the grand finale. And, again, it’s a finale that is self-indulgent — the ending Tarantino must have thought everyone wanted to see.
The movie remains a great deal of fun, but, ultimately, Basterds is only strong enough to be considered an annoying jerk. Which, really, is terribly inglorious.