Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood- Taking the Good with the Bad and the Ugly

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Rare is the director whose films seem like a mass event. Quintin Tarantino is one of the few filmmakers to remain controversial while sustaining coverage, popularity and critical success late into his career. His latest feature Once Upon a Time in…. Hollywood continues to explore genre-filmmaking through alternate histories, a trend that began with Inglorious Bastards. His movies have become increasingly long-winded and more grandiose as he’s aged. The Hateful Eight was a welcome return to Reservoir Dogs-esque claustrophobia, but whose narrative was equally unwieldy as Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained. Tarantino suffers from tangents, he indulges seemingly all his instincts which works to the detriment of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Where The Hateful Eight saw him focusing on more valuable and acute themes, this latest work is an extremely lengthy only occasionally rewarding buddy-adventure flick. It’s his most gushingly heartfelt movie since Jackie Brown but it’s also arguably his least coherent in style, tone, substance and flavor.

The movie follows actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/best-friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who share mid-life crisis during post-”summer of love” 1960’s Hollywood. Rick Dalton happens to have some new neighbors Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zaweirucha). Potentially this could’ve been a brilliant framing device in the vein of Kieslowski’s Three Colors, instead Tarantino uses this plot thread as an excuse to revel in some of the most frivolous scenes of his career. There is almost no purpose to the Sharon Tate scenes, she spends most of them dancing or walking places, there is never any insight into her character and why it would have been such an utter tragedy to lose her. Her role should have either been reduced to the background as an almost shadowy presence lingering over the film until the end or her role could’ve expanded, ultimately she felt unnecessary which seems odd given the film is rewriting the events of her actual life. The Manson family does make an appearance, in a particularly overwrought-cult scene that is saved only by the charismatic presence of an aging Brad Pitt, however, the reward for the Mansons crossing paths with Rick and Cliff is quite large, the ending is satisfying, punchy and immediate.

There are many routes that would’ve reached that conclusion more efficiently and effectively. The first forty-five minutes rambles, establishing Rick Dalton’s position in the film industry by creating fictional-old films that he starred in. Tarantino clearly has tons of fun here getting to dabble in all his favorite genres, a wee bit of westerns, some good old-fashioned Nazi killing, violent crime dramas; in the process forsaking many of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood‘s strongest qualities which only emerge much later in the narrative. At the core of the film is the relationship between Rick and Cliff. Rick wants to be taken seriously as a leading man in Hollywood even as he gets older while Cliff is mostly happy just to be coasting along with Rick occasionally taking on stunt jobs but clearly getting too old, testy and restless for such a gig. This only becomes clear about halfway through the film when Rick and Cliff have diverging narrative threads, Cliff meets the Mansons, Rick struggles with being a side-character on another actor’s television show, these are great scenes that show just how much the two old boys need each other, and when the movie is poignant it’s usually because of the brotherly chemistry between the two leads; to paraphrase Tarantino, their love for each other “is a little more than a brother and a little less than a wife”.

There is just so much wasted space stacked on top of the genuinely warm, loving buddy-flick at the center of the action. The Bruce Lee scene is an egregious addition, Cliff has already been established as a tough-guy, there is no reason to be insecure in Brad Pitt’s scars and intimidating smolder, he was a badass the moment he walked on the screen there was absolutely no need for a racist, tasteless, aggravating scene where he kicks Bruce Lee’s ass excessively. Sharon Tate watches herself in a movie for a good quarter of the narrative, which is about as much fun to watch as it sounds like it would be. The film ends on such a brutally violent and delightful note that many of these useless scenes seem less offensive but there is forty-five minutes to an hour of footage that is completely self-indulgent and pointless. 

Once Upon a Time in….Hollywood is by no means a bad film and I suspect there are some who might even love this movie, but it’s a mess. Exhausting, often annoying and occasionally fun, Tarantino has made his worst movie since Death Proof, which feels unfair because Leonardo DiCaprio plays the most varied role of his career thus far, a bipolar, lovable, and instantly sympathetic leading man who takes his craft and position seriously, he’s not a star but he’s got the makings of someone who might’ve been. Brad Pitt is the backbone of an already fantastic finale, not many people can have a good acid trip while actively participating in multiple homicides but Cliff Booth is that guy and Brad Pitt is the person to understand him. With performances so gracious and giving, it’s a shame that the excessive script could not have been edited in post-production into a more substantive and ultimately enjoyable whole. This is the most mixed-bag Tarantino has offered up, equal parts good and bad ideas.