Writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film takes place in late 60’s Los Angeles and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a once popular and beloved television actor who is now finding it harder to get real work, often relegated to appearing as the villain in sporadic TV episodes and having to rely heavily on his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) to drive him around and to do odd jobs around his house, with Dalton starting to crumble when faced with the knowledge that his career is likely over. Set mainly over the course of a single day, Rick struggles to get through the filming of his latest project while Cliff has a run in with a shady and very dangerous cult, while actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) takes a trip to watch one of her own movies at the cinema.
As an incredibly popular, imaginative and entertaining filmmaker, with several great films to his recognisable name, a new Tarantino film is surely always going to be a major event and his latest, an ode to the glory days of moviemaking, has been on many people’s radars for a while now, including myself of course as Pulp Fiction is one of my all time favourite films and watching Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained when they were new in cinemas were rewarding experiences indeed. So I was lucky enough to catch QT’s latest at its very first showing but was it worth the wait? Ummmm . . . not really. Overall, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has moments of brilliance, the cast is ace, it all looks polished and professional, and I guess you can’t fault the intention behind it all, but I’d also say that the film is regrettably flawed and its problems result in it being one of Tarantino’s least memorable efforts, I’m sad to say.
But what’s the problem? My main issue with OUATIH (a truly horrible acronym) is that there’s not enough of a plot or an intriguing story and the bloated runtime becomes an issue as the pace positively meanders, too focused on establishing a certain atmosphere and indulging in imagery that constantly pushes Tarantino’s love of movies and the classic Hollywood era directly in your face. Of course, a slow burn film is not necessarily a bad thing but there has to be substance in order to make it work and while OUATIH has a little something at the centre, the plot is too threadbare and although there’s always something nice to look at on screen, as well as the promise of a surprise just around the corner, it quickly becomes clear that not a lot is actually going to happen in the film and that QT is going to be taking his sweet time. I mean, at the beginning, we are given MANY slow shots of Brad Pitt just driving around and then going on to wander around his trailer and feed his dog; granted, it’s meant to demonstrate the difference between his life and Rick Dalton’s life in his huge mansion but it’s in scenes like this where we see things that could very well have been left on the cutting room floor and at a certain point, I began wondering how long the film would actually be if QT had only included scenes that were actually relevant to the plot. At least half the length, I’m guessing!
It eventually gets to a scene where Brad Pitt goes to fix an aerial and when we see him going into the toolshed to get the necessary materials, I honestly thought that we would ACTUALLY see him fix the aerial! In real time!
True, the plot that we’re given is decent enough but looking back on it, it’s clear that the plot threads concerning Rick working on his show, Cliff encountering the Manson Family and Sharon going to the movies take up nearly 3/4 of the film and so it’s apparent that the plot is incredibly thin and is stretched out to within an inch of its life. The film is also a tad indulgent as various movie posters are included in far too many shots, hammering home the idea of “what a golden age this was”, and overall, OUATIH seems to leans far more towards style than substance.
But despite those fatal flaws, an average Tarantino is naturally better than most films out there and OUATIH isn’t totally devoid of merit; the cinematography is probably the best that we’ve seen from a Tarantino film and he and cinematographer Robert Richardson very effectively capture the look and feel of 1969 Los Angeles with a certain grainy feel and the splendid costume and production design, as well as the well chosen, era-specific soundtrack, also go a long way in making the film lovely to look at on the big screen. And despite his story being one of Tarantino’s least eventful and fulfilling ones yet, there are still plenty of enjoyable moments to get found throughout the film; despite the huge outcry and controversy surrounding it, the scene with Bruce Lee is probably the best scene in the film as it is enjoyable and both Mike Moh and Brad Pitt play it beautifully, the sequence wherein Cliff encounters the Manson Family excels in building a sense of dread, tension and unpredictability (and Dakota Fanning once again proves how impressive an actress she is nowadays by playing Squeaky so creepily), the Kurt Russell narrated montage scene is quite a bit of fun (with a divine Inglourious Basterds reference thrown in!), and the finale takes events into a completely unexpected direction – introducing some of that incredibly bold Tarantino violence (too late in the game for my liking!), giving a counterfactual view of history like Inglourious Basterds did, and mocking the Manson Family in the same way that Django Unchained did to the KKK and what Inglourious Basterds did to the Nazis.
Then there’s the cast and, as he’s done in the past, Tarantino has assembled an adept and recognisable team for his latest feature, all of them doing a mighty fine job. Having impressed so many with his villainous role in Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio is back in the central role of struggling actor Rick Dalton and, as you can surely expect from him by now, he’s just brilliant – able to project the cocky, swaggering nature of his famous character but also occasionally breaking down and showing emotion as he goes through on-set meltdowns when he faces the possibility of becoming redundant and forgotten about. He also gets his share of comedic moments when he shows that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and here, he equally excels as he doesn’t overdo it and he just comes across as a naturally funny performer. Backing him up, Brad Pitt is his usual charismatic and confident self and although Cliff Booth is pretty much just Pitt being Pitt, he fits right in and is perfectly at ease with the material – giving a confident and well rounded performance which shows his proficiency with the physical business as well as the dark comedy. And even though she doesn’t get to do much besides going to the movies and dancing, Margot Robbie is as watchable as she’s ever been and as Sharon Tate, she’s likeable and, like the others, she fits right in.
Rounding out the cast, Mike Moh almost steals the show in his very effective and funny role of the famous Bruce Lee – a delight despite the controversy, Al Pacino is as reliable as ever in his brief role of ambitious producer Marvin Schwarz, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning and the others who play the members of the Manson Family are all appropriately shifty and nasty, Kurt Russell is as cool as ever, Timothy Olyphant is charismatic and altogether excellent as Rick’s fellow actor, Damien Lewis is an absolute dead ringer for Steve McQueen (I didn’t even recognise him – I just thought it was some actor who looked like McQueen!), and there are also some Tarantino regulars scattered throughout. Just no Tim Roth who, as the credits state, was apparently cut from the film (?)
So that was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I went in expecting to be entertained and amazed, finally being given that 5 star film that 2019 has yet to bless me with, but I left not feeling much of anything apart from mild enjoyment, an appreciation of the technical craft involved and of the participation of the cast. Tarantino’s latest may have had the best of intentions and it is something that he has probably wanted to make for a long time, a project that shows a love and appreciation for a certain era of moviemaking but for me, it didn’t exactly sparkle as the story was particularly flimsy and a little pointless and the whole thing didn’t quite capture the majesty or power of Hollywood in the way that something like La La Land did. And if you want to see a 2019 film about Hollywood – a long, slow and mysterious one that references the golden age and perhaps shows the dark side of it all – I’d steer you more towards Under the Silver Lake.
Oh, and of course, Tarantino’s foot fetish rears its ugly head again in OUATIH, with so many instances of barefoot characters sitting with legs crossed at the ankles – resting on tables, beds, windshields, movie theatre seats and out of car windows. Seriously, QT – give it a rest!
Not an N word in sight though, so I guess that’s progress.