Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Regular readers may have already observed my periodic rants against the voting tendencies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I'll skip my usual tirade here other than to point out one particularly telling misstep made by Oscar: the near-total shutout experienced by Pulp Fiction at the 1995 awards.
While I frequently disagree with the Academy's picks, that year's ceremony seemed particularly political. The battle mainly raged between Pulp, a profane, violent and tremendously thrilling movie that actually managed to seem new and fresh - something we don't see frequently - and Forrest Gump, an entertaining but fairly conventional and sentimental film.
As they consistently cast their votes for Gump and left Pulp out in the cold, it seemed clear that the Academy made a statement with their votes. Down with young, hip and potentially offensive; up with clean, stale and acceptable for all audiences. Pulp won only one of its seven nominated categories, that of Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen; Gump came from an already-existing novel or it would have trumped Pulp there as well, I'm sure.
No offense to Gump, because it really is a decent little film once you separate it from all its hype, but it doesn't even remotely compare to Pulp as a movie. Gump was a pleasant picture that achieved its modest goals and made a lot of people happy. Pulp, on the other hand, set screens on fire and proved to be one of the most influential films of the Nineties.
I guess "slow and steady wins the race" with Oscar, though, since they chose to take the path of least resistance. It looked like a wimpy move seven years ago and I don't think time will alter that opinion, since Pulp doesn't look to become any less scintillating any time soon.
Pulp provides a non-linear series of vignettes framed by a robbery staged at a coffee shop. In the first, hood Vincent Vega (John Travolta) must take Mia (Uma Thurman), the wife of his boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), out for a night on the town. After a fun time at a hipster restaurant, things take a dark turn when Mia overdoses on heroin she mistakes for cocaine, and Vincent must revive her.
Called “The Gold Watch”, the second segment concentrates on over-the-hill boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis). Ordered by Marsellus Wallace to throw a fight, instead Butch wins and kills the other boxer in the process. After word got out that the fix was in and odds greatly favored the other fighter, Butch put down his own bets on himself via an agent, so he stands to make a financial killing if he can escape the wrath of Marsellus.
However, Butch’s flighty French companion Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) forgets to bring a family heirloom - the titular timepiece - with her, so Butch must take his chances with a visit to their apartment. There he manages to regain the watch and kill the thug waiting for him, but on the way back to his motel, he coincidentally encounters Marsellus on the street. After an altercation, the pair end up in a pawnshop where they get held as captives by some freaks who plan to rape them.
Lastly, “The Bonnie Situation” returns us to the characters from the first story, Vincent and partner Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). After Vincent accidentally blasts off the head of a captive, they need to quickly deal with the bloody car, and they pull into the house of associate Jimmy (Quentin Tarantino). There they call Marsellus, who sends Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel), a man who takes care of problems. After he deals with this issue, Vincent and Jules discuss the latter’s feelings that they encountered a miracle back during their job. Although a punk fired at them at very close range with a very large gun, they escaped without a scratch, and Jules considers the theological ramifications of the event. They have this chat at the diner featured early in the movie, which brings Pulp back home.
By no means is Pulp a perfect film. Really, the movie's main fault is the somewhat weak second act, aka the Bruce Willis section. This is no slight on Willis, especially since he provides some of his best work in this film. "The Gold Watch" actually works pretty well, but "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife” is so good that it's an incredibly hard act to follow. Logically, director Tarantino opts for a second act that goes at a different pace from the edgy, retro-hip attitude of "Vega", so “Watch” moves a bit more slowly. I like "Watch" but it's undeniably the weakest of the three segments.
"The Bonnie Situation" helps recapture the magic of the initial segment, though it also isn't quite up to the highs of "Vega". To be frank, though, I'm nitpicking, because what's mediocre in Pulp would be outstanding in another film. This is moviemaking of the highest order, a thoroughly invigorating and exciting film that remains compelling even at its worst.
A lot of this is due to the fine acting we see. John Travolta resurrected his career through his part as Vega, and he couldn't have done so in finer style. He plays the part with style and aplomb. Samuel L. Jackson's his usual outstanding self; that neither he nor Travolta won the Oscars for which they were nominated remains a crime. Some controversy accompanied the fact that Travolta got a Best Actor nod while Jackson only was considered for Best Supporting Actor. Really, the film contains no lead characters, so Travolta should have been in the supporting area as well, but he does seem to have the character with the most screen time. Vega's also the only one of the "main" characters who appears in all three vignettes.
I also really liked the work from Uma Thurman. I think she doesn't receive a lot of credit as an actress because she has something of a bimbo model look to her, but she actually can perform well, and she does a great job here as Mia Wallace. Thurman manages to convey a wide variety of attitudes and emotions in the role and has never been better.
Tarantino goes out on a limb with many unusual stylistic choices, including the chronological variances that confused some audience members; I know because I heard them muttering during screenings. However, Tarantino makes it all hold together impeccably. The film is confusing if you sit back and try to cruise through it; you will have to think at times to keep it together, but with a modicum of intellect, it'll all make perfect sense.
One secondhand personal note: my friend Kevin's a flight attendant and he once had Amanda Plummer - who plays Honey Bunny - on a trip. He delights in telling how pushy and obnoxious she was and likes to call her "Demanda Plummer." Unfortunately, when pressed, Kevin will admit this is completely untrue; apparently Plummer seemed quite delightful and lovely and displayed no overbearing behavior. Kevin just wishes she acted untowardly because he's so fond of the name. However, it should be noted that apparently Plummer's "assistant" was a jerk, according to Kevin.
I won't call Pulp Fiction the best movie of the Nineties - I'd still pick Se7en for that honor - but it's way up there. It's a film that belongs somewhere in everyone's collection.