I don't think there's any doubt that Quentin Tarantino's latest will be one of the more divisive movies of the year, at least until the next Star Wars
film hits in December. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
is an overindulgent ode to late 1960s pop culture, mixed with a fantasy look at a real-life tragedy, combined with a story of male bonding. It's the kind of film that will leave audiences either cheering, or scratching their heads, wondering what the big deal is.
This is Tarantino in his environment, getting a chance to indulge in classic genre cinema, invoke a bygone time, and pretty much throw every classic pop song he can think of on the soundtrack. It's also probably his quietest and most reflective film, at least until the climactic moments. It's the kind of movie where the director lets you soak up the atmosphere, and just get lost in the time and place of the story. That being said, at a running time of 161 minutes, it does at times feel not so much like the audience is being soaked with atmosphere, as they are being drowned in it. The pacing drags from time to time, and there are moments where Tarantino seems to be so lost in his own setting that he lets shots linger for too long, or he just floods the screen with too much period detail while not having anything of note happen. This is undeniably a messy film, but still an effective one, because what he does right is absolutely beautiful.
The story is set mostly in February 1969, where we are introduced to a struggling actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) suffering through a career crisis. He was once a big name movie star, and even had his own TV series for a while with the Western vehicle Bounty Law
. However, once the show ended, his career went stagnant, and he is now basically known only for taking on guest-starring roles as one-shot "heavies" on various TV programs. Flooded with self-doubt and alcohol, Rick is approached by a film producer (Al Pacino) to do a series of Italian films - A career move that Rick pretty much sees as Rock Bottom, but given his current status in Hollywood, he can't really say no to. The only person who still seems to look up to Rex is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who started out his career as Rick's stuntman, but has since become his emotional support and all around "gofer".
Cliff has basically built his life around Rick's needs in recent years. He's there to remind him of his past successes, join him on the couch for some late night television, fix things around the home, drive him wherever he needs to go, and be a shoulder for him to cry on when he needs it. All of these things, Cliff does with pride. He wants to be there for Rick. Cliff has a bad reputation of his own, which makes some in the industry hesitant to hire or work with him. They often come across as comrades in arms fighting against a system that still employs them, but doesn't really fully understand them. It is their relationship that is at the very heart of the story that Tarantino is telling, and a big part of what makes the film work. These two men are from different walks of life. Rick is wealthy, despite his current sorrows, while Cliff is dirt poor. And yet, they need each other to survive, and they know it.
Cliff is Rick's personal cheerleader, always reminding him of who he is, and what he is capable of. He does not resent his position in life in any way, nor does he feel like he is being taken advantage of when Rick has him do things like fix his broken TV antenna. He wants to help Rex, and wants to be there for him. As for Rick, he realizes how rare it is to find someone like Cliff. Yes, he takes him for granted sometimes, but there is genuine respect between the two men. The path of these two men, and the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt are this movie's strongest aspect. Tarantino's screenplay gives these characters tremendous depth, and the performances only add to it. The way that both actors share the screen, without one performance overpowering the other, is a work of beauty. It's also easy to see that portraying Rick's career was the main draw for Tarantino to write this story. He inserts the character into a number of authentic genre films and TV shows throughout, and even uses special effects to digitally insert DiCaprio into actual films, like The Great Escape
. He's clearly having a blast with this stuff, and the fun comes through to the audience.
It's the stuff that happens outside of the Rick and Cliff storyline that the movie is not quite so confident. On the fringes of all of this, we are introduced to young Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising young star, recently married to Roman Polanski, and the new neighbor of Rick. She's cheerful, optimistic, and represents a more cheerful and innocent side of Hollywood glamour. Of course, there is a darkness approaching her that she does not realize, represented by a young cult. And even though Tarantino diverts from expectations by not going where we expect, it is still disappointing, because for most of the film, Tate is treated almost like a prop. She has not been given the attention or dialogue that Rick and Cliff have, and as Tate, Robbie basically bounces through all of her scenes so carefree and giddy that she seems almost like a non-entity. We know her place in the story, but we're not invested, because she is represented mostly as fluff, compared to the complicated and compelling relationship that DiCaprio and Pitt create in their scenes.
But what really holds Once Upon a Time..in Hollywood
back from true greatness is how Tarantino keeps on getting sidetracked with period details. There are so many scenes of characters driving in cars, watching TV, and focusing on nostalgic memorabilia while music from the era plays that it drags the film down at times. He obviously wants was to savor and admire his meticulous eye for detail and his recreation of the specific time period, and we certainly do. But, he goes into overkill here, just lingering on small details for what seems like far too long. I admired the effort, but at the same time, I kind of wish the film spent a little less time rubbing our faces in it. There are some nice details, like a Mad Magazine cover that parodies Rick's most famous TV show, but it definitely leads to some of the film's pacing issues.
This is a film that cries out for a shorter edit in order to be the film it truly could have been. With a few edits, and perhaps a strengthening of the Sharon Tate portrayal, this could have ranked as one of Tarantino's very best. As it is, this is a film to admire, but with far too many blemishes to be hailed as truly great. I enjoyed the journey enough that the film took me on, but I wanted it to reach its end long before it did.