In Theaters: Inglourious Basterds
Ever since Quentin Tarantino directed Jackie Brown twelve years ago, critics have been calling on him to make a true successor to it, a film that harnesses his undeniable talents in a mature way. I've got good news for those pundits: They'll finally find the film they're looking for in Inglourious Basterds. The tricky part is that I mean that quite literally -- that long-desired Jackie Brown follow-up is in this movie, but it's battling for screen time with a separate storyline that might be Tarantino's least consequential yet.
Even trickier is that the problematic plotline I'm referring to is the movie's most high-profile, starring Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of a group of Jewish soldiers known as the Basterds during World War II. They've got star billing and their exploits give the film its title, but the Basterds are annoying and surprisingly inconsequential protagonists. For all the fear that we're told their methods strike in the Third Reich, they're rather unmemorable in person (Tarantino doesn't even seem to realize he's misplaced several of them by the end of the movie) and their covert missions are often spectacular failures. In fact, if the Basterds had just sat this one out, little of the film's outcome would be different.
Luckily (and perhaps surprisingly, given the way the film's being advertised), Pitt and his Basterds have far less screen time to fritter away than you'd think. Instead, the movie's largest storyline, and its emotional center, is given to Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman whose family has been slaughtered by the Nazis. After narrowly escaping the creepy Nazi polyglot Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, lending the film a jolt of malevolent glee whenever he appears), Shosanna undertakes a new identity as a theater owner in Paris. Still, she's unable to avoid Nazi attention -- this time, in the form of smitten German war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), whose crush Shosanna leverages to attract Nazi bigshots to her theater for a premiere she hopes to turn into a mass assassination.
Tarantino has said that he toned down his depiction of the double-crossing Shosanna in order to make her less like Uma Thurman's Kill Bill Bride, and in stripping her of those superhuman qualities, he's made his first human heroine since Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. When Laurent is under emotional siege, she can effortlessly command a close-up in a way her counterpoint -- Brad Pitt's mugging Aldo Raine -- must visibly strain to reach. Her plotline is Tarantino's least fussed with and most successful, and it's not that I don't enjoy the director's anachronistic flights of fancy (indeed, it's exquisite when a David Bowie song plays as Shosanna sets her plot into motion), but Shosanna's story proves that that restraint suits him. At one point, the hammy Landa digs grossly into an overstuffed dessert as cool Shosanna refrains, and the contrast between their two approaches could sum up Tarantino's war with his fatty indulgences in a single scene.
(Credit must also be given to Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender, who handle a Basterds side-story with delicious aplomb. Kruger, who's so often cast as a shallow love interest, clearly relishes the chance to go for broke as a duplicitous but heroic German movie star, and the delight Fassbender takes in his fake, dulcet British accent is one of the film's biggest pleasures.)
In the end, then, Inglourious Basterds is the very definition of a mixed bag, though films that don't totally work are often more interesting to me than the ones that run smoothly. Tarantino has made (and no doubt will make) better films than this, but it'd be hard to produce one that feels more like him, and in saying that, I'm not just referring to his habit of pastiche but to the abilities that are too often obscured by it. Inglourious Basterds is in every inch a war movie: It's the tale of a filmmaker at war with himself.