Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
I really didn’t want to see this movie. In fact, if ANYTHING else had bothered to come out this weekend I would have seen that instead, but nope! Everyone had to make way for this film so I guess I have to try and be professional! I don’t know, with everything we’ve heard about Tarantino recently it’s just hard for me to get excited to see his movie’s again; let alone support a new one. Cancelled or not, I just personally feel very much deflated thinking about him and going to see his latest movie just felt like even more of a somber experience. Still, while acknowledging the very real and very important context of the artist behind the art, is there a good movie to be found here? I guess we might as well find out…
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor struggling to find steady work in the hectic world of late sixties Hollywood after a rather unsuccessful string of movies following a decent television career playing the lead role on a western. His stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) has stuck with Rick all this time since he’s had trouble finding work elsewhere and seems to have accepted his lot in life even if he’s basically Rick’s assistant at this point. Fortunately for Rick, he’s got a decent gig lined up playing the bad guy in some TV pilot which will hopefully get him some attention (otherwise he’ll end up doing Spaghetti Westerns which I guess weren’t good things to be in at the time) and this also means that Cliff has the day to himself which he uses to pick up a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) who wants to introduce him to her buddy Charlie who’s got a bunch of followers out in the desert. Oh, and on top of that Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is Rick’s next door neighbor, and she’s doing stuff as well like… seeing movies and dancing around the house. Can Rick nail this latest role that may be his last chance to stay relevant? What will Cliff find at the compound the hitchhiker is taking him too, and will he be able to leave if things get out of hand? Is it just me, or is Tarantino trying a bit too hard here? Or perhaps not hard enough?
This is a weird one because I am having the hardest time coming to some sort of bedrock idea for my analysis to build from. With a lot of movies it’s easy enough to find a point or at least some sort of angle from which to view its flaws and its virtues, but this one? It’s so all over the place in completely different ways that it ends up being not just a muddled narrative, but a muddled… I don’t know, EXISTENCE! I just can’t get a handle on what the filmmakers’ mindset was since so much of it seems to contradict itself at every turn. It’s recognizably Tarantino and yet nothing like the films he’s made before. Sometimes the darker material falls flat while the inter-personal relationship drama is incredible, but then later it’s completely reversed with the drama falling flat and the darker stuff working! He’s clearly trying to make something more grown up and serious minded, and yet he’s never been so lecherous with his camera. The only thing I could come away with is that he’s either floundering now that he’s no longer with Miramax or he’s too comfortable resting on his laurels now that he’s a free agent. Either way, this movie is just throwing a lot of things for a very long amount of time against the wall to see what sticks, and while a fair bit of it does, the end result is more of a jumbled mess than the kind of layered and intertwining storytelling that he’s typically known for.
Right off the bat I was not digging this movie all that much even if it was fun to see the filmmakers do a pitch perfect recreation of old school television westerns and a smattering of cheesy fifties B movies. I mean heck, Tarantino’s entire career is based on lovingly recreating what filmmakers of the past have done, so naturally he’s a great fit for that aspect of the movie, but that’s not the majority of the film and the change in focus from the films themselves to the people who make them end up feeling like a huge leap that Tarantino couldn’t make. In the right hands you can make a great movie about the behind the scenes realities and the accompanying absurdist of the Hollywood business, but in his it just comes off as tedious. I mean for crying out loud, did that scene with Pacino in the restaurant go on for five hours or something!? By the end of it I thought I was already halfway through the movie and it only got longer and more cumbersome from there. There’s certainly a THEME going on here about the changes in Hollywood heading into the seventies and how some people have trouble adapting to that kind of change, but frankly it doesn’t feel like he’s breaking new ground here and the way he goes about telling us that is completely languid. It has none of the focus or the strong pacing of previously sprawling efforts like Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds, and it doesn’t have the detail rich characters of Reservoir Dogs or The Hateful Eight, so what exactly are we are doing here and why are we doing it for so long!?
Now it does actually get better as it ends up hitting its stride right in the middle; mostly by getting into the characters that we’re following which finally gives us a reason to want to see their story unfold. Easily my favorite part of the whole movie was the scenes of Leo on the set of the pilot where he’s playing the bad guy and he goes through a huge range of terrifyingly relatable emotions. His interactions with Julia Butters who’s the young actor he’ll be working with in many of the scenes, the way he flubs his lines during filming and how quickly he can get back into character, it paints a portrait of a guy who has genuine talent for this work but not the confidence or emotional maturity to truly live up to his potential. The scene of him in his trailer after doing an EXCELLENT job but still having to retake a few scenes is scarily relatable as I’ve had basically that exact same conversation in my head… well probably too many times for it to be healthy. This whole movie I’m waiting for the even the slightest of reasons to want to watch these characters, and all of a sudden Leo is giving an Oscar worthy performance that gripped me in a way that few have this year! WHERE THE HECK WAS THIS IN THE FIRST PART OF THE MOVIE!? It’s definitely the standout part of the movie, but there are other scenes that work as well. I liked the flashback for Brad Pitt’s character which gives a bit of context as to why he is where he is right now; even with the controversial Bruce Lee scene. Yeah, there was a bit of laughter in the movie when he started to do his action hero shtick and I think it IS a bit messed up for this fictional white dude to try and take one of the few prominent Asian actors in all of Hollywood down a peg, but Mike Moh’s performance is REALLY compelling and I loved hearing him go on and on with his bad ass monologue. Lastly, this section of the movie is the only time that Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate feels like she actually MEANS something to the plot, which is certainly damning with faint praise, but I do want to give credit where it’s due. So much of Sharon Tate’s role on screen is distant; as if we’re kept at arm’s length so we can admire her from afar. Here though when she goes to see one of her own movies, it not only gives Margot Robbie a great chance to imbue her with a lot of character, it makes her a part of the dramatic thru-line of the movie. Like Leo’s crisis over becoming irrelevant and Brad Pitt’s resigned place in the world, Robbie is similarly portraying someone who is dealing with the prospect of putting their best years behind her. I don’t know anything about the real Sharon Tate so I couldn’t tell you whether or not her feeling anxious about her future as a star is a fabrication of the film, but it’s a great moment in the movie where not much is said but a lot is conveyed. The way she listens for laughter from the crowd whenever she tells a joke on screen or the part where she remembers how she learned the moves for the fight scene; it’s once again something I can relate to as I will sometimes look at my older stuff and get a bit of pride for the hard work that went into it as well as the fear that it might have been the best I’ve ever been creatively. If the whole movie was really focused in on this idea with these three characters, then we might have had something TRULY special, but unfortunately the film has to keep going and Tarantino eventually gets distracted by something else.
The final third of the movie is where a good chunk of the Manson family stuff occurs, and overall it just doesn’t work for me. First of all, it’s REALLY creepy but not in the way I’m assuming Tarantino wanted it to be because I’m less creeped out by the weirdos on camera than by the way the person behind it decided to frame them. Fellow critic Chris Cox (who has never heard of me, I’m sure) once said that Spring Breakers was like watching the director wag his finger with one hand while furiously masturbating with the other, and while I didn’t really feel the same way about THAT particular movie (it feels a bit reductionist considering everything else going on in the story), it VERY much applies here. It’s just so utterly shameless about how much the camera is lusting after these women (and particular parts that Tarantino… ENJOYS about them) while at the same time being utterly disgusted with them on a story level. Its pure objectification as he barely sees these people as characters rather than symbols to ridicule and therefore just as easy to sexually exploit. Now granted I’m not about to defend the Mansons as anything other than terrible people who did terrible things, but the way Tarantino shoots this isn’t doing a great job of conveying that as they are alternatively goofy and sex objects. EVENTUALLY at the VERY end of the movie there is some interesting stuff with those characters and this is the one part of the movie where Tarnation’s indulgences actually pay off. It’s shocking, gross, and a little bit funny, but most of all it feels genuinely cathartic in a movie that felt pretty bland for most of its run time. Unfortunately this is ALSO where the rest of the drama falls flat as the entire ending epilogue… thing, that’s going on here feels very underwhelming and Leo’s character never really reaches a crescendo for is arc that felt so promising back when he was making that pilot. This is what I mean when I say it’s all over the place; it has both good and bad stuff throughout it, but none of it is particularly consistent and the filmmakers should have done a better job of figuring out what worked and what didn’t when piecing this thing together.
There is a very good movie to be found in here about the end of an era and growing older in an industry that only gets harder and harder to stay relevant in. Unfortunately there’s ALSO a really bad movie in here that shows where Tarantino has failed to grow much as a director or as a person. I’m not gonna say whether or not he “deserves” any more chances considering how his checkered history has come to light in recent years , but this doesn’t feel like the movie that’ll convince anyone to come back to his side. I don’t really hate it, but it feels like a genuine misstep for the guy and if he is gonna make more movies I honestly don’t know if I want him to keep trying to go outside of his comfort zone or to keep regressing further into his pitch perfect skills as a recreationist of classic cinema, because honestly you could make an argument for both watching this movie. I don’t think I can genuinely recommend watching this in a theater (especially with such a bloated run time), but there is something kind of fascinating about it that makes it stand out even if it’s mostly a failure. I’m much more interested to see how others react to this movie than to revisit it myself, but there are a few really great scenes in here I’ll want to rewatch every now and again, and maybe it’ll be the same for you too!