ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Review
Very few directors working today can sell their movie with their name alone. When the trailer for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood opened with “The 9th film of Quentin Tarantino”, audiences knew they’re in for something unique. It’s a smart move as this is the most ‘Tarantino-y’ a movie can get; a love letter to Old Hollywood with fantastical elements and overflowing with pop culture references. And no shortage of swear words, feet shots and extreme violence.
Once Upon A Time was initially rumoured to revolve around actress Sharon Tate and her untimely death at the hands of the Manson family. A more fitting synopsis is Rick Dalton (Di Caprio), is a fading movie star who drives around LA with his stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) and worries about being relevant in Hollywood. Also, he happens to be neighbours with Sharon Tate.
If that sounds like an aimless story that doesn’t find direction until the last 30 minutes of the movie, then you will not be disappointed. The film, and the characters, wander from scene to scene with no through line except the characters. They feel like little vignettes, that are well crafted and entertaining in their own right, but don’t add up together. Sequences like Dalton working on a popular TV Western are enthralling, purely for the dedication Tarantino went to film it like an old TV Western. However, once you stop and contextualise the scene against the rest of the film, it seems pointless; and it isn’t the only time that happens. Even Tarantino’s frenetic style of editing can’t save the film from dragging, which isn’t helpful with a 2 hour and 40-minute runtime.
Not to say there aren’t some stand out moments that keep you entertained, all of which are tied to Tate and the Mansons. Margot Robbie is criminally underused in the film, but her one scene of her going about her day-to-day life is a sweet insight into a woman whose life was ripped away from her. It’s an important scene in hindsight, but Tate should have been more of a focus, especially when it comes to the finale. Another highlight is the tense, Mexican stand off between Booth and the Manson family on their ranch. It’s pure Tarantino thriller that has a less than satisfying pay-off, but is relevant later on in the film.
There is a reason the film is called “Once Upon A Time”, indicating a fantasy, storybook quality to the film. Much like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Hollywood is Tarantino’s expression of his own alternate history. In this case, what would happen if the Golden Age of Hollywood never died? The death of Sharon Tate, is considered to be the signal for the death of Hollywood’s innocence and a shift away from the old school filmmakers and stars. There is a scene in Hollywood where a number of stars of the 60s cameo, including Steve McQueen, in a party; celebrating their youth and the beginnings of their careers. For the importance Tarantino puts upon Tate’s death, he does little to paint her as a character and more as an innocent, defenceless angel who only acts in service of the fictional Rick Dalton.
Di Caprio and Pitt are a fantastic duo together that bounce off each other, akin to Paul Newman and Robert Redford, which the two emulate in look and style. The pair also play against type with Leo as the drunk, depressed and vain film star; and Pitt, a shady, stone-cold stuntman with a dubious history. Pitt’s character has some questionable moments including a controversial depiction of Bruce Lee, which his daughter has criticised. Their storylines are engaging, but again only work as individual stories and not as a whole. If Tarantino commits to the idea of adapting this into a mini-series, the screenplay might find a place to really shine.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is what you can expect from a Tarantino film, including a memorable script which is more thoughtful and less gruesome than his earlier works; stellar lead performances and under-utilised female characters. It also suffers from being drawn out and aimless, that while entertaining and beautifully shot, feels better suited for more long form storytelling.