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05.20.09

Tarantino's Love Letter

Inglourious Basterds, premiering tonight at Cannes, should have been epic, writes Dana Kennedy from the first screening, if only Quentin Tarantino had stuck with his violent, emotional hallmarks.

Inglourious Basterds—premiering tonight at Cannes—is the ultimate tribute to Hollywood, writes Dana Kennedy from the first screening.

That word—masterpiece—came up even before Quentin Tarantino's new World War II revenge epic, Inglourious Basterds, screened early this morning at Cannes for journalists prior to tonight's premiere. Tarantino told the New York Times he wanted to make the film so he'd have a "masterpiece" out before the end of the decade. You also hear the word in the movie, including the last line when Brad Pitt admires something he's just done and calls it his "masterpiece."

Call me a rebel, but Inglourious Basterds is no masterpiece, even though it's not by far his worst film. Brad Pitt, playing a big, hearty Tennessee hillbilly-turned-soldier with a penchant for carving swastikas in Nazi foreheads makes us forget he's Brad Pitt at times. The film should make an international star and Oscar nominee out of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who plays a hammy Nazi called the "Jew Hunter" who may or may not be channeling Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes and who enjoys the taste of fresh cow's milk in the morning.

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Inglourious Basterds, which is set in Nazi-occupied France and divided into five "chapters", is a story about a group of Jewish-American soldiers out to kill a band of Nazis and a young woman out to avenge her family's death by the same group. It stars a cast so big—Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Mike Myers and Rod Taylor play alongside several lesser-known German and French actors—that I often lost track. And it contains so many languages and subtitles (though I didn't hear any Aramaic) that everyone in the Grande Lumiere theater this morning must have felt at home at some point or another.

It's not Winston Churchill and the Americans who save the world and end World War II, it's Hollywood.

Tarantino's insistence that actors actually speak the languages their characters are supposed to speak is one of the great pleasures of the film, along with the comedy that he allowed to come up as a result of the difficulty in understanding everyone. Oddly enough, for all the attention he paid to authenticity with language, he didn't with location. Though the film was shot in Germany with some scenes shot in Paris, the European locations are wasted and most scenes could have taken place on a Culver City soundstage.

The film is partly an hommage to spaghetti westerns like Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which Tarantino has called the "best-directed movie of all time." Inglourious Basterds, which Tarantino has said he spent years writing, is also the ultimate love letter to cinema from the world's most famous former video store clerk: It's not Winston Churchill and the Americans who save the world and end World War II, it's Hollywood. The movie's two revenge plots—and I'm not giving real spoilers away here since they're mentioned early on in the movie—reach their denouement during, what else, a screening of one of Josef Goebbels' propaganda films in a Paris movie theater.

Inglourious Basterds is beautifully shot and the opening "chapter," set in a deceptively peaceful-looking French farmhouse visited by the "Jew Hunter" is so well-done, it promises to be the revenge film of all time. Avenging Jews? How can you miss? I also figured that if the French actress Mélanie Laurent—who plays Shosanna Dreyfus, the girl who witnesses her family being massacred and seeks revenge—was half as good as super-avenger Uma Thurman in Tarantino's Kill Bill films, Inglourious Basterds would blow audiences away as well.

It doesn't. And it's not just because the movie is too "talky," which it is. There's one snooze-inducing scene in a bar involving a lot of Germans and people pretending to be Germans where I saw the tell-tale flickering of Blackberries being checked. Tarantino fanboys always shriek that Tarantino shouldn't be dissed for his lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes but I disagree. Why does great dialogue have to accompany long scenes? Didn't someone last century say less is more?

Inglourious Basterds fails to be a masterpiece because if you make an epic about a little topic like avenging the Jews, you need some emotion. You need a little bit of soul stuck in with the wit and the cool and the trademark film geek insider references. I don't mean you have to get verklempt. But you want someone to hate a little bit—and someone to root for. You felt something when Thurman, as the pregnant bride in Kill Bill, was shot on her wedding day and her child taken away from her. By the time she killed Bill, you wanted him dead as much as she did.

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Laurent, on the other hand, is a flat, dour presence and acts in general as if she has little more to avenge in this movie than perhaps her credit card line being cut. It's not entirely her fault. The part is underwritten from the moment we see her run from the farmhouse in the opening scenes—but never see the other members of her family or how they are killed. For once Tarantino, who's often criticized for being too violent, wasn't violent enough when the movie could have used it.

Masterpieces also need a protagonist to carry the story, or at least one who's visible. The star of this film is really Tarantino, telegraphing us in interviews prior to the film and while we watch it what a masterpiece it is while we search for someone to lead us onscreen. Pitt's energy and hilarious character helps. Waltz is a revelation. Kruger, playing a German actress and double agent named Bridget von Hammersmark gets to hold a cigarette like Marlene Dietrich and speak her native German. But there's no hero, or anti-hero, to give the film traction beyond its series of gorgeously shot, imaginatively written and acted scenes.

I have a Jewish friend who, when she hears about some new development going on at work or in the world, always asks, "Is it good for the Jews?"

I say, Inglourious Basterds isn't good enough.

Dana Kennedy, a former correspondent for ABC News, Fox News and MSNBC, who also writes for the The New York Times, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time magazine and People, among others, is based in Europe.