Whether it’s obvious or not, every single feature film that Quentin Tarantino has made is about, well, film. There is rarely a moment in his movies where the writer-director isn’t projecting some of his knowledge as a pop culture buff and enthusiast. Tarantino understands the medium in and out, and knows how to use film as a message. And while I may understand the message of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I question if it is one worth really caring about.
That’s a bit mean of me to say, because it is fairly obvious that this film is Tarantino’s love letter (as cliched as the phrase may be) to the tail end of the golden age of Hollywood. To give it credit, it’s a showcase of Tarantino’s finest directing since Jackie Brown. But edited all together and what the film feels like is a mishmash of vignettes, all paced in Tarantino’s usual slow burn, culminating in what felt like a cheap trick.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: July 26, 2019
There isn’t much of a story in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; I’ll concede that there is a plot in that things happen, but it feels more like a premise or scenario stretched out rather than a sequence of events. Fictional fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is in a rut, with no one to lean on except his loyal best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Meanwhile, (the very real) Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) enjoys life in Hollywood, while the Charles Manson cult “family” loom over.
I reckon that Tarantino likens DiCaprio and Pitt as modern day leading men akin to Paul Newman or Steve McQueen and the like, and they’re fairly well-cast in their roles. DiCaprio taking his craft so seriously has essentially become a meme, and it’s entertaining to see a serious actor act as an actor, but acting comedically in playing a character that acts dramatically.
Brad Pitt takes on his role quite effortlessly, with Cliff Booth coming across as relaxed, confident, and complacent, despite his less-than-high life, a questionable past, and the fact that the unstable Dalton is essentially exploiting him and their friendship. It’s almost like Pitt’s stoner character from True Romance got out of the couch, learned some moves, and became a stunt double. I can’t really say that I was able to track any hint of character arcs between the two main leads, but the performances alone are undeniably magnetic.
Unfortunately, Margot Robbie mostly feels like a prop to the rest of the movie, despite Robbie giving it her all and adding dashes of energy and optimism into the film. She depicts Sharon Tate as bouncy and carefree, but an essential sequence in which Tate watches herself in The Wrecking Crew at a public movie theater is also telling of how devoted she is to her work in an effective manner. If only Tarantino could resist those gratuitous shots of feet.
That’s pretty much the extent of her role, though. I have a sense that she is meant to represent a ray of sunshine as the Golden Age of Hollywood wraps up, contrasting with foreboding scenes featuring members of the Manson family, but I also get the sense that Tarantino was too enamored by his own premise. Writing a film about an actor whose next door neighbor just happens to be Sharon Tate on the year of the Manson family murders, but it doesn’t feel like Tarantino actually knew what to do with it.
What results is a film that mostly feels like misdirection away from Tarantino’s usual shenanigans, which you can fully expect to emerge before the credits roll. Despite being the third lead of the film, Robbie as Tate feels like a red herring. I can make a guess on what the ending of this film means in Tarantino’s mind based on what Sharon Tate represents to him, and it’s one based off of a sense of juvenile and sentimental joy that I imagine from him. We get it, Quentin, you really hated to see this era fade away.
There isn’t really much of a structure in Hollywood, unlike a lot of his previous films being divided into distinct chapters. The bulk of the film feels a bit slice-of-life, depicting a single day and spending an extended time with each of the three leads one at a time before switching to the next character—occasionally, you’ll get long cutaway flashbacks to provide context to what’s currently happening. Despite the sense of aimlessness at times, and the lack of any direction in the story, I still have to admit that Tarantino knows how to direct a goddamn scene.
Like I said, it’s a slow burn (there’s a lot of screen time of the characters just… driving), but despite Tarantino’s tendency to let his characters ramble on about the most menial things, there’s something about the way that man crafts dialogue that makes almost anything intriguing. I have qualms about how the entire overall movie is structured, but a number of sequences still stuck to my mind: Rick Dalton filming a scene from the show Lancer, but not from the perspective of the filmmakers or the performers, but from an omniscient third party; Cliff Booth exploring the Manson family settlement, which had that same Tarantino tension that captivated us in Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds, despite a lack of “action.”
The enchantment ended for me as the movie was clearly wrapping up, moving on from the day-in-a-life framing and haphazardly stuffing a conclusion together. It comes across as someone getting carried away writing something on a sheet of paper, only to realize that they’re running out of space and scribble nonsense in tiny text all the way in the bottom. I get that this isn’t what Tarantino’s actual process was like, but it’s hard to see the ending as anything but a silly magic trick. While I guarantee that theater audiences will find glee in the turn, I found myself in a solid state of incredulity.
Quentin Tarantino wants you to know that he loves movies. He cares about them. Most importantly, he knows about them. It isn’t solely from some sense of ego or self-superiority (at least, I hope so), but rather from his desire to keep that love and care and knowledge alive. That’s why Al Pacino’s agent character emphasizes that he saw Rick Dalton’s pictures in 35mm film. That’s why Max Cherry in Jackie Brown sought movies as a form of escapism. That’s why Michael Fassbender’s English officer in Inglourious Basterds used his knowledge of German cinema in a life-or-death situation.
Yet somehow, I feel like something is lost in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when the subject matter is literally Hollywood. I’ve always appreciated Tarantino fare (even freaking Death Proof) for using movie genres as a backdrop for the director to play with his silly characters and story ideas, but here, the two are flipped: the characters are the background, while the setting is the real story here. And perhaps that will resonate with a lot of people, who will appreciate the film for the same reasons it missed with me.
I’ve gotten a bit of enjoyment from every Quentin Tarantino movie, and I could say the same for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino can be an unbearable know-it-all, but I won’t deny the importance of needing someone like that in a the digital age of streaming. Left to his own devices, however, and you get a mosaic of pop culture references to make a Ready Player One for the 1960s. We know that Tarantino can give us more than that.