I am not much of a Quentin Tarantino fan. Of his nine films, I’ve only ever seen four of them, and by all accounts, that’s enough. Reservoir Dogs was okay, but I was not a fan of Pulp Fiction or Django Unchained. Tarantino has a very unique style, and his writing can definitely be sharp and witty, but it always felt to me that he can also be very overindulgent, an opinion that doesn’t end with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — even as his ninth film finally breaks through as one I can actually say I enjoyed, despite having no discernible plot.
That seems to be another Tarantino staple — his films are more character studies than anything else, which I respect. But by focusing on the day of the life of several characters, where they don’t change one iota from the start of the movie to the end, the whole experience can become stale. Events happen, characters push through, the end. Nothing of significance happens.
With Hollywood, though, this idea gets subverted by a third act that takes us to a completely unexpected place. His tendency to explore a larger topic (in this case, the career trajectory of a Hollywood professional) keeps you engaged in one aspect of the film while he slowly builds the foundation for a heart-pounding sequence that shocks and awes while screaming ‘gotcha!’ in an oddly fun and interesting way.
Let’s break it down. The majority of the film takes place over the course of two days in February, 1969. Confining his events to a specific time period, whether it be a couple of days or mere hours, is another Tarantino trope that can sometimes become a detriment to the film. Here, it forces a section of the film to bridge events over a span of months, making the film feel rushed, as if they spent so much time on one thing, they couldn’t figure out how to cram in all of this other important information… even when it’s not even that important. It felt a bit lazy on Tarantino’s part.
The film itself focuses on three characters:
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star who left his hit show, Bounty Law, to become a movie star and is now all but washed up, spends most of his time on set of another hit television show in which he guest stars as “the heavy”. He is going through an existential crisis as he ponders what’s next for his career and whether he should take the advice of a producer (Al Pacino) and make some films for the Italian cinema.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a former stuntman who may have evaded the law a few too many times, spends his days driving Rick around Hollywood and doing his chores. As he waits for Rick to finish filming, he takes a young, beautiful hitchhiker back to where he once spent several years working as Rick’s stunt double on Bounty Law. He learns quickly that a bunch of hippies have formed a sort of cult at the ranch. It’s none of his business (and it’s not ours, either, apparently, as Tarantino spends very little time exploring the ins-and-outs of what made the Manson Family tick); he just wants to check on his old friend (Bruce Dern).
And then there’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a young, up-and-coming movie star who married Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and was famously killed by several members of Charles Manson’s (Damon Herriman) “family”. Sharon spends her day at the Playboy mansion and the movie theater, where she hangs out for real-time reactions from the audience while watching her first film. She doesn’t do much; she’s basically there to set up the third act.
In fact, none of them actually do much of anything. Rick gets some advice from the young star of the TV show; Cliff takes off his shirt and gets in a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh); Sharon buys a book. It’s all very mundane and doesn’t move anything forward — except to seduce you into a sense of complacency.
And yet, the energy that all three of the lead actors radiate is kinetic. Each one imbues their character with so much depth with the simplest of facial expressions and body language, as well as how they interact with other people. It’s like watching a master class in subtlety. DiCaprio gives Rick a slight stutter when he’s not on set; Pitt lays back in his performance so much, he becomes his own sedative; and Robbie spreads joy with her never-ending smile. Each one of these details could have felt forced, but the way these three handle those idiosyncrasies is so natural, it becomes its own source of tranquility.
For the most part, you don’t feel the length of the film, as the performances are so good and the events are infused with just enough humor to keep your interest tethered to what’s happening, but there are moments when you do feel the weight of the over two-and-a-half hour run time. Tarantino relies heavily on several fetishes, including several minutes of people walking (first as a closeup of their feet and then of their upper body) and a penchant for spending too much time with characters that ultimately don’t have any purpose for anything except to hire some of his friends for what amount to glorified cameos — the most egregious of which is Damian Lewis, wasted as megastar Steve McQueen.
In the end, I believe I liked this film because it took an interesting behind-the-scenes look into what makes Hollywood tick, which I always find fun and fascinating. Getting to see poster art and footage from Rick Dalton’s fake films was great, and the art direction transported us back to the sixties with ease. One of my favorite sequences is when Tarantino imports DiCaprio into a scene from a famous film while Rick tells the story of how he was on the list of actors to fill a major role if the one who ultimately made the film had dropped out.
It may be a bit long in the tooth, but for my money, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best film (that I’ve seen), mainly because of the winning performances by his three lead actors. Whether it won me over enough to continue watching more of his stuff, I don’t know; but at least he won me over this one time. And as an artist, sometimes, that’s all you really need.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw. If you would like to see a review for this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.