Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie review: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt shine; Quentin Tarantino shocks
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Director - Quentin Tarantino
Cast - Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell
Rating - 3.5/5
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a solid yet surprising addition to director Quentin Tarantino’s singular filmography - a languid and laid-back mood piece that doubles as a throwback to the filmmaker’s lifelong obsessions, and ends with one of the most controversial sequences of his career.
Despite being fully prepared for what was in store, I was taken aback by how many surprises Tarantino had up his sleeve. There is none of the breakneck back-and-forth dialogue that the filmmaker is known for; the conversations, instead, are paced as sleepily as the summery vibe of the film, which is set during a period of great upheaval in Hollywood, circa 1969.
Don’t get me wrong, his characters are still partial to a long chin-wag, but in a less aggressive, and more internalised manner - perhaps a sign that Tarantino, like the fading movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is maturing with age.
Watch the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood trailer here:
Dalton is one of the filmmaker’s finest creations, a character upon whom Tarantino has projected some of his own self-seriousness. He’s pathetic without ever seeming weak; selfish without ever coming across as self-centred, and I was taken aback by how funny he is. Rick was one of the most famous television stars in Hollywood a few years ago, but could never transition to a career in the movies. This is a matter of grave concern for him.
The only reason the town still takes him seriously, he tells his companion and longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is because he’d listened to some solid advice when he was starting out, and bought his own house in the Hollywood Hills, instead of renting an apartment. “It means you’re here to stay, and you’re not just moving through,” Rick tells Cliff one evening, and pat comes Cliff’s standard response: a smile and a nod of acknowledgement.
Cliff is a man of few words. He is ‘more than a brother’ to Rick, ‘but less than a wife,’ the narrator (voiced by Tarantino regular Kurt Russell) informs us. Their dynamic isn’t unlike a married couple’s. Why he has stuck by Rick is never really explained - he rarely ever performs stunts for him anymore, and is more of a gofer instead - but he has his own skeletons. Word around town is that he was involved in his wife’s death. It really seems like neither Rick nor Cliff has anyone but each other in the world.
So when the hottest director in the business, Roman Polanski, moves in next door with his wife, the actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Rick sees it as a sign from above; as if the universe is conspiring to ensure that he have a career.
Ironically for a film about the movies, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is far less kind to historical figures than it is to fictional characters such as Rick and Cliff.
Having assumed that her murder at the hands of the Manson Family would be a significant part of the film - every moment she appears on screen seems to be building towards it - I was stunned by how little Sharon Tate has to do in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Honestly, barring DiCaprio and Pitt, everyone else in the film’s sprawling cast, is basically playing a cameo. This just goes to show how desperate actors are to work with the legendary filmmaker; it’s the sort of pull that only Martin Scorsese has these days, and what Woody Allen used to enjoy until very recently.
But Sharon Tate isn’t the only real-life figure that Tarantino does a disservice to; his portrayal of Bruce Lee is bafflingly mean-spirited. I read recently that had it not been for a very concerned Brad Pitt, it would have been worse. It is almost as if Tarantino had a personal axe to grind against the late screen icon. I wonder what it could be.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first Tarantino film since Jackie Brown, I believe, that he hasn’t divided into chapters. But its structure is as episodic as his other movies. A longish sequence in which a child actor sends Rick spiralling into an existential crisis is hilarious, and will possibly played on loop when DiCaprio is inevitably nominated for an Oscar. Another, in which Cliff pays a visit to the Spahn Ranch, where Charles Manson and his family have set up camp, is directed like a Spaghetti Western.
The movie is, however, also a victim of some of Tarantino’s annoying excesses, and self-imposed rules. Tarantino has convinced himself that a film’s length is directly proportional to its quality. As anyone who has seen City Lights (a breeze at 87 minutes) and High Noon (even breezier at 85) would tell you, this is simply not true. Once Upon a Time..., like The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, could easily have shaved a few minutes off its 161-minute runtime, especially because it has such a meandering structure.
There has been talk of Once Upon a Time... being re-edited into a four-hour miniseries for Netflix, when the time comes for it to be released on home video and streaming. I’d imagine it would make for a more enjoyable experience.
As amusing as it was to watch a bunch of Jewish mercenaries massacre Hitler and his Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, or to watch a black slave annihilate his white oppressors in Django Unchained, Tarantino’s revisionist streak is sure to divide audiences right down the middle this time around. Personally, I was on board with the burst of his trademark graphic violence towards the end, but once again, his single-minded obsession with putting his female characters through hell can’t help but feel a little tiresome. The times have changed, I wish he’d have as well.
If Tarantino is to be believed, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his second-last film. To end on a truly subversive note, might I suggest that for his final movie, Tarantino direct a nice little romantic comedy set in a French vineyard or something. If anything, it would give him an excuse to really zoom in on the feet as they stomp on the grapes.