Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood finds Quentin Tarantino at his most indulgent. The two-time Oscar winning screenwriter has always favored a hyper-verbal style and more is so much more sense of filmmaking, but it makes this tale of 1960s Hollywood one of his most frustrating efforts.
By the sheer star power of a project boasting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in starring roles joined by Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Damian Lewis and Emile Hirsch, Once Upon a Time… can’t help but be entertaining in segments. It’s just that feeling of crushing boredom and extended bouts of nothingness that prevent Once Upon a Time… from feeling truly special.
Rick Dalton (DiCaprio, The Revenant) is a fading star slowly coming to grips with the reality that he’s no longer a leading man and is instead being used to prop up young stars in their new TV series. It’s a rough period for Dalton, who largely gets by with his hype man/best friend/stuntman/gopher Cliff Booth (Pitt, Allied). Cliff is unaffected by Dalton’s career-life crisis, which he nonchalantly attributes to his fearless mindset, despite the inevitable realization once Dalton stops working so does Cliff.
DiCaprio has mastered playing broken characters and in Dalton, he finds another meaty role with a character who’s past the point of pride and has to suck up his lot in life while he’s still able to perform. There’s no longer that spirit of desperation and DiCaprio makes Dalton nearly obsessed with his legacy and determined to go out with his head held high.
Pitt is equally enjoyable as the calm and quietly self-assured stuntman who never had illusions of grandeur and happy to live a simple life with his pet pit bull Brandy. There hasn’t been a lot of legit stars since Pitt who come off so effortlessly cool, which serves him well in this role. He and DiCaprio are fantastic in their scenes together and one of the film’s major highlights.
Dalton’s got new neighbors Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Robbie). He keeps hoping for an invite over to their house for a potential career resurgence. That’s a nice meta subplot as DiCaprio had a terrific turn as the guy who held the lavish parties in The Great Gatsby.
Just before the halfway point, Cliff recalls his encounter on a backstage lot with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, Inhumans). Moh’s confident take on Lee is so fun and engaging that I was far more interested in following his exploits for the rest of the film instead of the characters Tarantino spent so much time barely developing.
There’s no denying Robbie is one of the more breathtaking, photogenic stars in Hollywood, but she’s also a tremendous performer. You wouldn’t know that from her role here as Tarantino is happy to cinematically ogle her spectacular flowing hair, long legs and of course her feet.
Tarantino’s foot fetish has gone from somewhat eccentric to straight up weird and if you’re not a foot person, this probably won’t be your movie. Fetishes aside, it’d be somewhat forgivable if there was more to Robbie’s screen time beyond “check out how incredible she looks!”
Consider how Martin Scorsese utilized Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese didn’t try and hide her physical attributes, but provided ample opportunities for Robbie to be the film’s breakout star as she more than held her own against DiCaprio’s Oscar worthy performance. Tarantino paints Tate in only the best, most angelic light and only teases at any depth to her in a scene mentioning her relationship with Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) before marrying the acclaimed director Polanski.
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Tarantino didn’t invent naval-gazing, but he could teach a master class on it. There’s so many pointless moments and scenes that serve no purpose than to inflate the film’s running time. Tarantino never allows the audience to fill in basic gaps like how a character drives home and instead breaks down the entire route. At times you can see the method to this exhaustive style of storytelling madness, but other times it’s just Tarantino indulging himself because no one will question him.
Maybe the most frustrating aspect of the film is when Tarantino doesn’t try to get too cute and just lets the story flow in a logical manner. The Cliff/Bruce Lee scene is great, but there’s others like Rick recapturing his mojo that is a rare fully-earned moment and a standout scene. Cliff stumbling onto the Manson Family compound is a suitably eerie and haunting scene.
These are the kinds of moments that serve as a reminder of Tarantino’s incredible talent and skill as a filmmaker. It’s just too often his worst impulses drag the film down to a level of excess it doesn’t need.
The final act is a spoiler involving the Manson Family and their intended victims. It’s hard to spin a real life horrific cult killing, but Tarantino does his best. Yet in the wake of that damning New York Times interview with Uma Thurman, the level of violence against women in this scene is a little shocking and very disturbing.
Clearly, most critics are loving this and think it’s another triumph for Tarantino, but Once Upon a Time..in Hollywood is ironically a fitting metaphor for Tarantino’s fading star power.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures