Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood Movie Review
In Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino trolls his loyal audience for over two hours before finally getting to the point and delivering a satisfyingly epic and unexpected climax. Whether the first two+ hours is worth it is up for debate.
Lesser Tarantino is still better than most, but make no mistake: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is lesser Tarantino, the worst movie of his career, a meandering, seemingly aimless journey that seems to take all of that nostalgia for filmmaking of yore that the acclaimed filmmaker has always embraced and dump it onto the screen in a much more overt way: by actually setting the movie in Hollywood, following actors and a stuntman as they go about their days.
At two hours and forty minutes, Tarantino’s latest is about the same length as many of his other movies, but it’s also the first of his movies that don’t have a plot centered on a crime, or action, or a clearly forward-propelling plot.
Yes, there is a tie-in to Charles Manson, but much of the movie is focused on following washed-up western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and washed-up stuntman/errand boy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) driving around Los Angeles doing things that people did in Los Angeles in the late 1960s.
What Tarantino does and has always done well is give his actors exceptional material to give exceptional performances, and as expected both DiCaprio and Pitt are at the top of their games. DiCaprio in particular is a blast to watch; even in the most innocuous scenes, he is riveting. As an actor within the story, he essentially plays multiple characters, each with their own nuances and tics, personalities and behaviors. The scene in which Dalton’s on-screen villain holds a young girl hostage is proof of his capabilities; you feel the energy and anger, even though you know what you’re watching is not only fiction, but fiction within fiction.
Pitt is less obviously incredible but still crucial to the production, a seemingly carefree individual upon which the film’s core premise, whatever it is, ultimately revolves.
Tarantino unfortunately fails to utilize his other A-list, Oscar-nominated actor: Margot Robbie, who starred alongside DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Robbie gives it her all, but barely has a presence: her character, real-life actress Sharon Tate, primarily oggles herself in a movie theater, a seemingly innocent bystander to her own career success. It’s not a juicy role at all.
Scene by scene, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood works as well as other Tarantino movies; the dialogue is generally sharp, the situations just off enough to be darkly humorous. Tarantino delivers several masterfully made sequences, most notably a quietly disconcerting one in which Pitt wanders onto a ranch housed by some menacing hippies.
But overall, the synergy is lacking, as is the energetic spark you expect from the filmmaker. The movie feels drawn out to the brink of breaking apart, never boring or dull but loose for no particular reason other than that Tarantino is so confident in his writing that he never stopped to think that maybe shorter is better. The movie is entertaining in the mildest of senses… it keeps you intrigued, even if you keep demanding it get to the point sooner than later. Tarantino appears to have made this movie with the intent to avoid some of his film’s most common and recognizable signatures, but that restraint largely doesn’t work.
DiCpario and Pitt make for a good pair, the two playing off one another in a way that only old on-screen friends could do. Their chemistry is the glue that holds the movie together--and moving along. Even if the story isn’t captivating, watching these two actors work often is. At least to an extent.
It’s almost as if Tarantino purposefully made Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood drawn out just so that the climax would come with a bang, a completely unexpected burst of energy that is noticeably missing from the rest of the film. Some may say the ending doesn’t fit, or that Tarantino drops his guard, but walking out of the theater it certainly made it harder to hate on the movie.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is not a great movie. It’s long and sort of slow and further proof that filmmakers think audiences care about old Hollywood as much as they do. But even “bad” Tarantino is arguably worth it… even if it’s a movie that won’t be watched on repeat like much of his others.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.