When I first learned that Quentin Tarantino’s next project (after the grand Inglorious Basterds) was going to be the spaghetti western homage Django Unchained, I’ll admit I was a trifle concerned; for every classic A Fistful of Dollars, there are at least twenty messy spaghetti-o rip-offs with titles like Eat My Lead and Die, Zartana!
Plus the last time that Tarantino went the grindhouse route, he came a cropper with Death Proof…and if that weren’t enough, Tarantino’s lead was going to be played by Jamie Foxx, a man of many talents–one being the ability to seem plainly dispirited onscreen if a project was going south (Exhibit A: Law Abiding Citizen. I can happily say that all my concerns proved unfounded, as Django Unchained is a tremendously entertaining, exciting, thought-provoking, and at times downright hilarious buddy film/western (though some might say “southern” with its main locale). The movie, set in 1858, revolves around a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), who serves as a mentor to the slave he frees (Django—silent D—played by Mr. Foxx), helping him become a skilled bounty hunter in his own right, while planning to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a charming, ruthless plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The first hour of the film is fast-paced, funny and well-nigh flawless, as Waltz’ philosophical, deadly bounty hunter/dentist engages in some dangerous slave trading, bonds with Foxx’s bemused, terse Django, and demonstrates his skill at removing unwanted varmints from the frontier, placating the local law officers…and staying one step ahead of potential enemies. In this section, and throughout the film, Waltz and Foxx play beautifully off each other; though we’re ostensibly concerned with Django’s rescue of his wife, it’s the humanity and warmth of the evolving Foxx/Waltz relationship that’s really at the heart of the film. When Foxx and Waltz meet up with DiCaprio’s venal slave owner—and his trusty and even more vicious manservant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the pace slackens somewhat but is sustained by the interesting twists (of plot and character) , capped by a few gloriously bloody, stylized shootouts.
Django Unchained exhibits all of Tarantinos’s strengths: witty references to earlier films (such as the original Django, Mandingo, Two Mules for Sister Sara—about another unlikely pairing—to name but a few); a script that is capable of being savage and funny, profane and profound—sometimes in the same sentence; a masterful use of actors, occasionally subverting our expectations through clever casting. An early scene involving Jonah Hill, Don Johnson–and what to do when eyeholes don’t allow you to see –is one of the funniest scenes on display this year. Here is also an example of Tarantino’s genius: the ability to utilize an unlikely situation to shock, amuse-and stimulate thought. There has already been some criticism about what some might call the gratuitous use of the n-word, but in Django, it is generally used in service of either a serious point, or a seriously funny moment. Overall, while it doesn’t reach the sustained high of Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained is not only one of Tarantino’s best, but one of the best films of this year.
Judd Apatow’s This is 40 is an intermittently enjoyable 87 minute feature buried somewhere in a 135 minute cinematic equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. In this study of marriage, relationships, music, mortality, friendship, family, disappointment, deception, despair—and technology, Apatow seemingly threw everything up on the screen, told his editor to go home, and hoped for the best. And yes, some of it works, as Paul Rudd’s 40-facing, over-extended (financially, emotionally) record exec tries to save his failing label with a new Graham Parker record (you read it right—and by the way, Graham Parker gets my award as best sport of the year, as his rocker is used to depict how out-of-touch Rudd’s character is-with everything); meanwhile Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wonderfully talented, real-life wife ) is in 40-denial, coping with a sagging business, sagging spousal interest, and sagging…well, you get the picture. For every funny moment or interesting insight, there are several exchanges that make you wince and wish that the director had remembered the old axiom that less is more. A climactic speech by Mann’s character further muddies the waters, as it seems to absolve personal responsibility while suggesting that if we’re all fouled up, just blame the parents. Albert Brooks is quite marvelous as Rudd’s father, who has to live off his son’s largesse in order to support his unexpected new brood, while John Lithgow contributes sterling , moving work as Mann’s estranged, remote-but not entirely soulless father. More of Brooks and Lithgow would have been fine indeed.