Say what you will about the cinematic lightning-rod that is Inglourious Basterds‘ writer/director Quentin Tarantino. Criticize him for his bursts of gore or for his potty-mouthed scripts or for his pop-culture fetishizing, too-hip-for-the-room dialogue. But you’ve got to give the man this: No other director has ever made sitting around a table quite so engrossing.
It’s understandable that the first thing people think of when they think of Tarantino films is violence. The ear-severing scene in Reservoir Dogs, the torture in the basement in Pulp Fiction, and the “so bloody it had to be rendered in black-and-white” House of Blue Leaves sequence from Kill Bill, Vol. 1 all left a cringe-inducing impression.
But consider also the on-screen conversations that have allowed Tarantino to build both character and tension: the diner chat in Reservoir Dogs, Vincent and Mia at Jackrabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction, Bill weighing in on Superman’s secret identity in Kill Bill, Vol. 2. In some genre movies, the time when people sit down to gab is the time to head to the snack bar; in a Tarantino movie, those are the moments that fans find the most riveting.
Inglourious Basterds finds Tarantino’s characters once again spending a lot of time sitting around tables talking. If you know his history, the knowledge of what’s possible after those conversations can give the scenes a unique quality. And then you get what actually happens — and in hindsight, all the yammering seems considerably less potent.
Tarantino spins an alternate World War II-era reality, centered around a special team of Jewish-American soldiers supervised by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) operating in occupied France. These take-no-Nazi-prisoners men come to be known collectively as the Basterds, and they’re exactly the sort of men the Allies want to send to the premiere of a new German propaganda film at which all the Third Reich’s top officials — including Hitler himself — are set to attend. What they don’t know is that Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), the owner of the theater chosen for the premiere, has her own vengeance-driven plans for making the night a memorable one.
A prologue set in 1941 establishes the back-story behind Shoshanna’s grudge, and also provides the film’s first lengthy table talk — this one between a French farmer (Denis Menochet) and Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a Nazi officer known as “The Jew Hunter.” Waltz provides the foundation for what becomes a terrific performance as he establishes his power with well-chosen words (and pulling out a bigger pipe). Waiting for the other jackboot to drop becomes a typically Tarantino-esque bit of anxious delight.
But even when such conversations eventually erupt into gunfire, Inglourious Basterds doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Tarantino’s best. Whatever visceral qualities made Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the like indelible, they were elevated by characters facing moral choices. Here, Tarantino seems to be going strictly for genre pleasures, and while he could make that work in the streamlined 90 minutes of his “Death Proof” segment in Grindhouse, Inglourious Basterds feels like 2-and-a-half languid hours occasionally punctuated by a spatter of blood.
What he’s missing, first and foremost, is a protagonist whose fate will hook an audience. Shoshanna appears to be the prime candidate for that role, but Tarantino spends surprisingly little time establishing who she is beyond her dark history. The Basterds themselves are little more than fodder for the story’s speculative fantasy. With the exception of Pitt’s Raine and Eli Roth’s bat-wielding Sgt. Donnie Donowitz, the team is largely an anonymous amalgamation of parts, and Pitt’s performance is a piece of jut-jawed foolery that seems like a better fit for a Coen brothers comedy than this milieu.
That, perhaps, is the hugest disappointment of Inglourious Basterds: the fact that Tarantino occasionally seems tone deaf. Never before has he indulged the kind of broad performance Pitt turns in here; never before has he done something as silly as casting Mike Myers as a British commander in a scene that doesn’t seem intended as comedy. His dialogue scenes crackle mostly with potential energy, but the dialogue itself meanders. We’re always willing to listen to Tarantino’s characters talk, provided we ultimately realize that the chatter matters. In Inglorious Basterds, it’s just a lot of background noise.