For a movie that runs nearly three hours and has tons of stars from past and present, I have surprisingly very little to say about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (OUATIH).
While many have said it doesn’t feel like a Quentin Tarantino movie, I have the exact opposite opinion. This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. Throughout the film, I was constantly aware that I was watching a Tarantino film, and that’s usually a great thing. I love his films (even Jackie Brown). But this movie is Tarantino on steroids, mainly for the sake of being Tarantino.
Back In The Day
Set in 1969 Hollywood, the movie follows two storylines. The first is Rick Dalton and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (played by Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt). Their careers are clearly on the downswing, and Cliff’s main job is driver/handyman to Rick, who spends most of his time guest starring in typecast roles. The second is Sharon Tate and her squad. At various points they intersect with the Manson Family who, as we all know, murdered Tate et al. The movie ressurects Tarantino’s love of alternate history, and at the end we realize the appropriateness of fairytale feel of the title.
But to get to the end, where Rick, Cliff, Sharon and the Mansons all intersect, is a long, meandering road that is more like a love letter to that period in Los Angeles, filled with unnecessary characters and sequences. It’s as if the word got out that Quentin is only doing a couple more movies and everybody wanted to be in his films. There are so many cameos and guest spots you can’t keep up.
About halfway through (when a normal movie would be wrapping up), one of my friends leaned in to me and asked what this movie was about. I had no idea myself!
The Beat Goes On (and on and on)
Most of these roles are characters in the fictitious TV shows and movies that Rick and Cliff work on. That means we see long scenes from movies that aren’t relevant to the actual film we came to see. At one point Tarantino has Dicaprio and Timothy Olyphant act out an entire pilot episode for a western. None of this advances the plot. We already know Rick is struggling. This doesn’t make us feel any better or worse towards him. His scene with a child actor on the fake show, played by Julia Butters (who is a revelation and is my pick for the Critic’s Choice Young Actor Award), could have summed up his struggles and the generational change just fine.
But we get extraneous scenes, a fight between Cliff and a smack talking Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). We also get a look at Luke Perry, Lena Dunham, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, and the list goes on.
The vast majority of this movie is more like a love letter to LA at the end of the sixties. The cars, the neon signs, everyone smoking. It’s one thing to bathe in nostalgia. But OUATIH drowns us in it, and for no other discernible reason except that Tarantino loves the era. Which is fine, but it doesn’t really do much to service the plot. This film could easily be an hour shorter. I still have no idea why we spent so much time with Sharon Tate watching herself in her own movie. And driving around. And looking wide-eyed. Perhaps it was to tempt us to let her in, even though we (think we) know she’s doomed.
When the Rick-Cliff/Tate/Manson storylines finally begin to converge, we have a real movie. And all the performances, leads as well as extraneous cameos and supporting roles, are solid. Dicaprio could even get an Oscar nomination. The shooting is terrific. The attention to detail exquisite.
But it the cadence of the actors reminds us that Tarantino has only once style of writing. The shot selection reminds us that he has only one way of directing. Margot Robbie driving around LA in a car takes us back to Uma Thurman driving around in Kill Bill. The alternate history brings us back to (the vastly superior) Inglorious Bastards.
Basically, we’ve seen this done, and we’ve seen it done better. If anybody else turned in this exact same film, nobody would care.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
A Mezcal. They’re drinking it in one of the scenes for the fake TV shows. Lord knows I wish I’d had one at that point.