John Travolta (left) and Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction"
This eagerly awaited second feature by Quentin Tarantino is lodged in an eerie time warp that fuses the 1940s and '90s with $5 milkshakes, autos whose interiors are in color as the scenery rolls by in black and white, pay phones and car phones. As Frank Lloyd Wright said: "Stand the world on its edge, and everything loose would end up in L.A."
Stylish and nihilistic, rife with lowlifes and misfits, the movie tells three intersecting tales. There are the nervous lovebirds (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) knocking off a greasy spoon in broad daylight; the bumbling hit men (Samuel Jackson and John Travolta) analyzing the downside of hitting on the boss' wife; and the palooka (Bruce Willis) on the run after not taking a dive.
They're all compulsive, with both their guns and their mouths, and what sprays from the latter is a mix of pop culture, profanity and lurid threats. Eyeing an oozing stiff, a gangster mulls over his next cup of coffee; making love, a couple argues the semantics of "pot belly" vs. "tummy."
This fictional world, though rendered imaginatively, can't sustain the movie. The characters undergo no changes whatsoever--which is convenient to this world's amorality (nothing can get better or worse)--but scarcely cinematically engaging. And Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs") keeps repeating his effects. Time and time again, characters are taunted at gunpoint. Time and again, grisly melodrama is played against mundane chitchat--which seems to endorse violence as just another way of shooting the breeze. Time and again, the plot shifts consciously. Interspersed graphics and titles have a certain freshness, but no unifying purpose.
Like last year's "The Piano," this one took the Palme d'Or at Cannes. There's some reason for this honor in the inventive camerawork: Actors are provocatively in and out of the frame, characters are introduced from behind (one with a Band-Aid the size of a two-by-four on his neck). But even these effects are repeated an nauseum. Or maybe it only seems so. When there's nothing to want, nothing to hope for on behalf of any of the characters, not even the cleverest camera can shoot a movie worth watching.
Rated R for strong graphic violence and drug use, pervasive strong language and some sexuality. 2 hours, 34 minutes.
- Marc Vincenti