Although it's as enamored of Nazi paraphernalia as Valkyrie (or Triumph of the Will), Inglourious Basterds has nothing new to say about World War II. Quentin Tarantino's latest sprawling, self-referential opus is a trashy, muddled celebration of payback, the movies, and the personal obsessions of its writer-director, who may be the most fascinating and frustrating major American filmmaker working today.
Inglourious Basterds' first "chapter" is its best, highlighting Tarantino's unparalleled gift for building tension with blocks of seemingly harmless chat. He's fascinated by the sly, almost flirty banter that precedes violent action, and he loves to slowly raise the threat level as one character intimidates another through off-the-wall pseudo-intellectual disquisitions. Inglourious Basterds' hypnotic opening sequence exemplifies this technique, as Nazi colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a French farmer accused of hiding Jews. Landa's polylinguistic adroitness is an unlikely yet important power tool, but his silences, pauses, and even his particular little personal items — dip pen, Meerschaum pipe — all contribute to an increasing sense of doom that's inevitably fulfilled.
Near the end of this scene, though, Tarantino's nods to and flashy borrowings from other movies start to creep in; the famous open doorway shot from The Searchers is reprised for a grimly ironic affect. But over the course of 153 strangely slack and diffuse minutes, those references devour the film, and pop-culture knowingness eventually triumphs over any emotional response. Ennio Morricone music springs up at every turn to underscore the numerous "beeg-eyed" Sergio Leone close-ups and Dirty Dozen posturing, a clever bit of verbal slapstick is staged and shot in medium long shot like a 1930s screwball comedy, and a baseball-bat wielding sadist is played by Eli Roth, the dungeon master behind both Hostel films. Brad Pitt, dressed in a white Casablanca tuxedo jacket, is jumped in a movie house, while a femme fatale plots a form of revenge in a projectionist's booth that Pitt's Fight Club alter ego Tyler Durden would applaud. The horrifying climax is less an inversion of the Holocaust than an inversion of Joe Dante's Cold War movie-house comedy Matinee. Familiarity with history ("Is that Winston Churchill?") is instantly trumped by familiarity with celebrity ("Is that Mike Myers?"). And so it goes.
After a while, it feels like Tarantino's not-so-hidden obsession in Inglourious Basterds is the burden of his own movies, which is appropriate for a film whose characters constantly worry about whether their menacing nicknames are justified. Still, it's disheartening to see such a gifted, subtle, energetic storyteller indulge in his fourth consecutive blustery revenge fantasy. The noxious racial and ethnic theorizing (True Romance, which he only wrote, but still), ominous displays of cordiality that conceal murderous intentions (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death-Proof), preposterous Mexican standoffs (Reservoir Dogs), and luxurious foot-fetish camerawork (Kill Bill Vols. I and II) are all present and accounted for as well. For me, catching the references and spotting the familiar elements were sometimes all that enlivened the dull proceedings. What could have turned on the viewer who doesn't carry around a head full of names, faces, places, and references?