With a Chinese censorship two-step thrusting it back into the news and a brand-new DVD release for viewers who missed Quentin Tarantino's most recent effort when it was in theaters, Django Unchained might seem to be ideal fare for those seeking an evening's frivolous entertainment.
In light of a continuing campaign to anoint the deeply modest filmmaker's latest a work of genius (not to mention a baffling Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay), it may help to have a little perspective.
5 Reasons Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained Is Not a Masterpiece
1. The N-word. It's difficult to enjoy a movie that relentlessly deploys the loaded slur--arguably essential for capturing the brutal racism of its characters but inexcusable when used for "comic" effect, a directorial favorite that makes viewers complicit in the ugliness. Django would have been much more effective had the N-word been limited to chillingly casual usage by Leonardo DiCaprio's silky monster and sparsely deployed by the other (stock) villains in unexpected moments of venom. Certainly, sparing its African-American characters from having to utter the obscenity would have enhanced the picture's power, as well as any claims it had to plausibility.
2. Ponderous pacing. A nearly 3 hour running time is par for the course for Tarantino, but the longueurs in Django are something new. Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke, who died in 2010, may well turn out to be the unsung auteur of the director's work. Menke imbued Tarantino's pictures with a propulsive energy that hurled us giddily forward, not allowing viewers time to dwell on the more ludicrous, objectionable or tedious content. Without her unerring eye and ear, nearly every scene of Django goes on too long, and at least two of the three endings should have been jettisoned.
3. Powerful bad acting. Samuel L. Jackson is breathtakingly good when underacting--silently grasping the connection between two alleged strangers, quietly terrorizing Kerry Washington--and painfully heavy-handed when overindulging in Tarantinoesque minstrelsy. For the five minutes Leonardo DiCaprio stops hamming it up and actually inhabits his character, he's equally mesmerizing. Sadly, most of Leo's performance is the kind of exhausting look-at-me-be-decadent capital-A Acting geared to be noticed rather than enjoyed. Don Johnson, here burnishing his somewhat undeserved reputation as an underwhelming actor, wastes a potentially tasty cameo by doing little besides a terrible Southern accent.
4. Kerry Washington. Actresses in movies today are as scarce on screen as dinosaurs, an especially galling trend in superhero megaflicks and period epics with enormous casts. Django's woman problem is most egregious in its waste of the charismatic Washington, who gets to scream, be naked and tortured, smile and wave prettily, and utter perhaps a dozen words, half of them in German.
5. Quentin Tarantino, actor. British? Southern cracker? Australian? Tarantino's grasp of accents, like his ability to create a recognizably human character in front of the camera, remains a constant. Fortunately, [WELCOME SPOILER ALERT] we don't have to watch him "work" for very long.
4 Reasons Django Unchained Might Still Be Worth Renting
1. Christoph Waltz. Another in a long line of white characters who steal the spotlight from a film's (nominal) black hero, Waltz is granted the film's most irresistible lines and its only agency. Yet playing a buoyant eccentric to the hilt, the actor makes his character comically exhilarating and--against all odds--believably human. The only thing wrong with Waltz's performance is that it ends. And from the moment it does, so, essentially, does the movie.
2. The D is silent. Jamie Foxx holds the screen effortlessly in a quietly compelling performance. He almost makes up for the peculiar venom that powers the heavy-handed detonation of the film's other significant black character--a queasy-making send-off that casts not one of the infinite selection of white villains but another black man as the film's most nefarious and despised subject.
3. Klan comedy. If Mel Brooks can lampoon Hitler, why shouldn't QT send up the KKK? The stunt casting of Jonah Hill is only one reason Django's so-tasteless-it's-priceless white-sheeted buffoonery must be seen to be believed.
4. Quentin Tarantino, director. With less-than-enthralling musical choices, messy, juvenile storytelling and needlessly excessive violence, Django is far from the director at his best. Even so, to experience a Tarantino picture is to be transported to another world, entertained by an audacious mixmaster of pop culture with a voice distinctly his own.