'I think this just might be my masterpiece."
These are the last words uttered in "Inglourious Basterds," said by Brad Pitt's gung-ho, down-home WWII lieutenant Aldo Raine after he commits one final, brutal act of defiance against the Nazis. But it's hard not to consider that he's merely echoing the sentiments of the man who wrote those words, director Quentin Tarantino. It's even harder not to consider that Tarantino truly believes it.
After all, "Basterds" is an epic project that Tarantino has been wanting to make for the past decade. Some of us thought Tarantino would never stop writing the script for this grand, violent, bombastic salute to the war movies he grew up watching (especially the 1978 Italian-made, WWII flick whose name Tarantino lifts and incorrectly spells).
He really should've stopped writing the script.
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Clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, "Basterds" is chock-full of Tarantino reminding us that he is one of our most outrageous, cinema-literate filmmakers. But it also hips us to Tarantino's flaws as a filmmaker, most notably his inability to flesh out a story that could perfectly house the self-reflexive, orgulous, out-there sequences he mostly conjures up.
"Basterds" isn't so much a plot-driven movie as it is a movie littered with long, drawn-out set pieces, some of them showing off Tarantino's penchant for ratcheting up tension. The opening scene, in which a deceptively mild-mannered SS colonel (Christoph Waltz) goes into the home of a French family man and interrogates him about the whereabouts of a Jewish family, which just happens to be quietly lurking underneath the floorboards, almost makes you believe that Tarantino knows what he's doing.
Unfortunately, the rest of "Basterds" shows you that he doesn't. Tarantino once again applies his novelistic style of storytelling, but it's literally all over the place, filled with some of the wackiest music cues I've heard in a movie since the last Tarantino film (only QT can have a soundtrack that includes Ennio Morricone Lalo Schifrin, Billy Preston and David Bowie's "Cat People" theme). Even when he breaks the movie down into five chapters, the whole thing seems cluttered and jumbled. It's like he kept coming up with a different story every time the story he was writing would get boring (and it occasionally does). "Basterds" is basically an ambitious war movie assembled by an ADD sufferer.
It turns out that the titular crew of mostly Jewish soldiers -- led by Pitt's knife-wielding, hillbilly outlaw (Pitt seems to be having a good time overacting his brains out, slapping on a Tennessee accent and sticking out his chin to look like Alex Ross' vision of Superman) -- who kill and scalp Nazis all through Nazi-occupied France barely matters to the story. Tarantino also throws in (again!) a story of female vengeance, in the form of a French-Jewish woman (Mélanie Laurent) who hatches a plan to kill the Nazis when they attend a movie premiere in her theater.
"Basterds" is just nutty. It's the kind of movie in which Hitler, Goebbels and rest of the Nazi brain trust are seen more as blithering idiots than purveyors of terror. The kind of movie in which Tarantino actually casts "Hostel" director Eli Roth (the less said about his acting, the better) just to have him inflict bloody pain on the random Nazi. The kind of movie in which Mike Myers shows up in freckly, wrinkly makeup and delivers a homoerotically charged performance as a British general.
But, as with most of Tarantino's post-"Jackie Brown" work, I also got a perverse, fetishistic vibe. With "Basterds," I don't feel like I'm watching a WWII movie, but someone's gleefully phantasmagoric vision of a WWII movie, in which Hitler, and everyone who ever sympathized with him, ghoulishly get theirs in a fashion that's both manically cinematic and aesthetically orgiastic.
More than any of Tarantino's previous films, "Basterds" has him preaching the importance, the power, the thrill -- if you will -- of movies. He even shows that cinema could win a war. In this WWII movie, it's not what you know on the field that could save you, but what you know about the silver screen. In a bit of pandering, Tarantino gives us one heroic soldier who just happens to be a film critic. (Um, thanks?)
However, Tarantino's love of cinema often eclipses Tarantino's love of coherent cinema. He's so in a rush to give you a rush, he never stops to wonder whether any of this makes sense, not to mention whether anybody would actually want to sit through it when it doesn't.
As always, Quentin Tarantino lets us know he's still crazy about movies with "Inglourious Basterds." I only wish I could still be crazy about one of his movies.