Photo credit: IMDB/ Columbia Pictures, Bona Film Group, Heyday Pictures, Visiona Romantica
Quentin Tarantino knows how to make movies. Not one person within a 30-mile radius of you right now would argue that fact. And why should they? The man brought us Pulp Fiction for Christ sake. A film so off-the-wall and outrageous that it now sits firmly in the, “This doesn’t really make any sense but who the hell cares?” camp. I myself have seen enough R-rated gorefests from Tarantino that I now close my eyes at night and see glimpses of Sam Jackson taking bites out my Big Kahuna Burger whilst, simultaneously, Mr White and Mr Pink are having a Mexican standoff over a half-dead cop in the corner. It’s all fun and games until its not.
The point I’m making here is that Tarantino has made some of the most iconic films in the last 20 years of cinema and that’s unfortunately the reason why Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is one of his weakest entries. The director has such a pedigree to his name that he can now pretty much do whatever he wants regardless of quality. He’s untouchable to the common man. No one, not even the studio top brass are going to stop THE Quentin Tarantino from making his next bloody masterpiece.
But oh boy, should they have stopped him.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, (which for your sanity as well as mine, I’m going to shorten to OUTIH) follows the story of Rick Dalton, a washed-out TV actor struggling to stay relevant in the ever-changing landscape of film and television in late 60’s America. At first, like many, I was hooked on this premise. Going behind the scenes of the entertainment industry in the 60’s and doing it Tarantino-style was surely a no-brainer. In my head I was conjuring up scenes of drunken debauchery, exotic parties and hilarious over-the-top characters. Going off the title of this review however, you will be surprised to learn that none of this ever happens. Instead we get a big budget soap opera with the occasional witty line and action sequence thrown in. I liken this to a soap opera as, for the whole two hours and forty-five-minute runtime, there is absolutely no discernible plot to speak of. Nothing meaningful ever happens. There are just lots of scenes of people talking about their lives and going about their daily business, which for the entertainment industry, seems to be painfully dull.
‘But wait!’ you may cry, ‘Tarantino’s films have always been slow burns. It’s his dialogue that makes it all worthwhile!’. And on any other occasion you would be right. Unfortunately however, in this instance, I am sorry to report that the director’s classic edge-of-your-seat dialogue is almost completely absent. We don’t have that epic Sam Jackson biblical monologue that we got from Pulp Fiction, nor do we ever get that tense opening exchange by the villainous Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. The closest thing we ever get to a meaningful conversation happens when our main protagonist, Rick Dalton, gets talking to a young actress on the set of a TV show. It is very cleverly written and is the first time that Dalton openly shares his inner demons with anyone outside of his best friend.
Despite the impressive all-star cast summoned before King Quentin, some of whom are classic Tarantino mainstays such as Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern, the performances are also definitely a mixed bag. On a positive, Di Caprio, who plays Rick Dalton, consistently and expertly balances his character’s inner self-doubt with a strong bravado exterior that Dalton often resorts to when in the public eye. Throughout the entire duration of the film, we can see that Rick Dalton is a man who likes to appear like he’s still at the top of his game when in the presence of others but in private, frequently shows that he is just a broken shell of his former self. No better is this displayed than during a stellar scene in which Dalton beats himself up in his camper van after forgetting his lines when working on an old spaghetti western.
Accompanying Di Caprio, we have (the real) Hollywood’s next big-ticket item, Brad Pitt. Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick Dalton’s supposed best friend and long-time man slave. Cliff is also Rick Dalton’s stunt double but I didn’t think that this was as relevant as we never actually get to see Booth do any stunts (outside of an admittedly hilarious encounter with Bruce Lee). Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth like Brad Pitt plays all the other roles given to Brad Pitt; he acts like Brad Pitt. Now, I have long said that Pitt is probably a really nice guy in real life and Im almost certain I know this because I’m convinced he just plays himself in all his films.
And I’ve seen most of his films.
Gone are the days of 12 Monkeys where he played slightly quirky, more out-there characters. Ever since Fight Club, Pitt has been raking in the paycheques for the ‘rugged, cool and collected’ roles that we now know him so well for. And sadly, Cliff Booth is no exception.
At two hours and forty-five minutes, I also don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that the film could have benefited from shaving the fat and focusing solely on our two main protagonists as they struggle to stay afloat in the unforgiving and vast ocean that is Hollywood. Instead we get two additional sub-plots, one of which is so unbearably painful to endure that I’m forcing myself to come back to it later. The first sub-plot however follows the ‘Manson Family’; that really fucked up cult you may have heard about on a Netflix documentary sometime. It’s true that the ‘Manson Family’ were a big part of the 60’s and considering that one of the primary characters in this film is Sharon Tate (who, on 9th August 1969, was murdered by the ‘Manson Family’ in real life) they seem like a necessary addition. The problem however is that the ‘Manson Family’ are only really in this film to serve as some sort of antagonistic force that allows Tarantino to indulge in his fetish for end-of-movie bloody climaxes. In classic Tarantino fashion, the final 30 minutes of the film goes from a gentle stroll with grandma to a Saturday night in Bangkok in a matter of seconds as a few members of the cult set out to murder Rick Dalton, his newly wedded wife and Cliff Booth in their LA home. The music swells and we get exactly what we’ve come to expect from Tarantino; a lot of over-the-top, gory killing. Now granted, this is a clear subversion of history as the cult members did in fact raid the home of Sharon Tate on the night of this encounter however the payoff would have been much greater had the antisocial antagonists been an ever-present threat throughout the film. Instead, Tarantino just wheels them out intermittently throughout the bloated run time to remind us all that they’re still there.
I briefly mentioned the other sub-plot in OUTIH and as a reviewer, I feel it’s my duty to cover it regardless of personal opinions or biases. This other sub-plot revolves around Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie as… she gets driven around by other people and goes to the cinema on one occasion. I kid you not, Margot Robbie must have been laughing all the way to the bank after landing this role as, despite her talent and range, she is literally given nothing to do on screen. Any time that the film does shift it’s focus towards Robbie’s character, the film desperately grinds to a halt and given that these scenes are scattered evenly throughout the film, this makes for a very frustrating viewing experience. Think of all those times you balled at a learner driver because they kept stalling the engine. It’s a lot like that.
Despite its flaws, from the bottom of my heart, I can genuinely say that OUTIH has glimmers of a classic Tarantino masterpiece. The musical score, as always, is completely faultless as the director expertly melds hits from the period such as ‘Treat Her Right’ and ‘Good Thing’ with character emotions and story beats. The set design and costumes are also the most detailed I have seen on a film in recent years and both really help to put you in amongst the glitz and glamour of Golden Age Hollywood.
I am not for one second saying that Quentin Tarantino isn’t a master of his craft. He came from cult film status to now being one of the hottest products on the Hollywood shelf. No mean feat by any standards. However, I do think that we as an audience are all still basking in the nostalgia of better times gone by. We remember back to the days of the wacky Pulp Fiction, the wow-this-is-so-good-for-the-budget Reservoir Dogs and that one time he made a film about a pyscho ninja assassin. We are all still under the illusion that anything Tarantino puts to paper is gospel and that every day is a Sunday. We have all, through our blind faith, given the director the keys to the kingdom and with this new entry, the supposedly penultimate film in his long-worshipped saga, it is clear that he still very much knows it.