By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated August 21, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Inglourious Basterds
Credit: Francois Duhamel

Quentin Tarantino’s fevered fantasia Inglourious Basterds makes? the delirious assertion that World War II was won through a combination of the power of movies and the prowess of a band of renegades led by Brad Pitt as a twanging moonshine-maker. So it’s perhaps unnecessary to point out that the blithe misspellings ? in the movie’s title are a delirious touch of nonsense too — ?the whim of a filmmaker who’s a bit of a renegade himself.

Still, I start with the title, since so too does Tarantino. His orthographic choices seem to say, Love me, love my idiosyncrasies — fun with words is only a hint of the coming attractions. (Trivia experts in the QT movie clubhouse know that Inglorious Bastards, properly spelled, is the American title of a 1978 B-minus Italian war movie with only the loosest of plot connections to this loopy homage.) Few young-to-middle-aged American filmmakers have the nerd-centric depth of movie knowledge and technique that Tarantino brings to his high-flying projects, and fewer still have the confidence to simultaneously glorify and deconstruct genre as he can, whether the genre is blaxploitation, Hong Kong action, ’70s grindhouse fare, or, in this case, war movies and ’40s noir. But Tarantino’s gleefully assembled spectacles are? inextricable from his frustrating emotional limitations: Everything is ?a game. And here the game includes spelling and the actorly imitation of ”people” in ”trouble.” And Nazis.

Or should I say, ”NAH-zeees”? That’s what Lieut. Aldo Raine (Pitt) calls them, as he handpicks a team ?of cocky malcontents — most of them Jewish — to join him in accumulating Nah-zee scalps. (Literally: Each man is assigned a quota of 100.) Pitt, in a ’40s-style toothbrush-bristle mustache, undertakes Raine’s preposterous speechifying in an accent just east of a George W. Bush drawl; he also pulls his lower lip up in a cornpone approximation of Monty Python’s Mr. Gumby. Among those who cowboy up for Raine’s regiment is Hostel ?director Eli Roth as “the bear Jew,” a baseball-bat-wielding lug who smashes his enemies’ heads to a pulp. You can watch, since QT is always up for a lavishly designed shot of brain splatter.

As is his preference, Tarantino builds his movie as a collage of interlocking set piece — cinematically dazzling, to be sure, ? enhanced by an meticulously chosen retro soundtrack — rather than a linear progression. As a result, it’s easy enough to tune out the Basterds while they scalp up a storm, and drop in instead on other colorful players. As Bridget, a German actress and undercover agent with exquisite taste in footwear, Diane Kruger presides over a conversation-rich scene in a pub populated with good guys and bad. As French-Jewish Shosanna, who witnesses the slaughter of her family, forges a new identity, opens a movie theater, and plots revenge, Mélanie Laurent presides over a climactic blowout — literally — in her Cinema Paradiso of a movie palace. (At the Cannes premiere, this line ?of Shosanna’s killed: ”We’re French. We respect directors in our country.”)

And as Nazi colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed ”the Jew hunter” for obvious and terrible ? reasons, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz ? triumphs, heroically, over Tarantino’s brash, cine-drunk tall tale. His Landa makes a ? magnetic entrance in the movie’s first (and very best) scene, terrifying a French farmer suspected of hiding Jews simply by requesting a glass of milk. Waltz, who easily won the 2009 Cannes prize for best actor, centers Inglourious Basterds with the welcome subtlety of his performance. In Tarantino’s besotted historical reverie, real-life villains Adolf Hitler and ?Joseph Goebbels are played as grotesque jokes. The Basterds are played as exaggeratedly tough Jews. The women are femmes fatales.? In such a cartoon world, the appearance of one stereotype-resistant protagonist — a Nazi, no less — counts as something glorious indeed. B

Inglourious Basterds

  • Movie
  • Quentin Tarantino