- Matt Linton
[SPOILERS] Review: Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood (2019)
Title: Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Bias: As a 90s-era film nerd, I have more than my share of Tarantino-apologist/defender tendencies
In a Nutshell: A fading Hollywood leading man, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) tries to come to terms with how far his star has fallen. His long-time stunt double, Cliff (Pitt) is his only friend (and driver, and handyman). Dalton's main claim to fame may be that he lives next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and his new wife, upcoming starlet, Sharon Tate (Robbie), who seem to have caught the attention of the Manson Family cult.
The Critique: I've often described Tarantino's 2015 film The Hateful Eight as a movie that contains everything I love about his movies, and everything I've hated, sometimes at the same time. The "hated" in that case being a level of excess and self-indulgence that detracts from the story he's telling. Hollywood contains very little of the former, but so much of the latter that it felt not just like a movie made by Tarantino, but one made specifically for Tarantino, as well. Even while admiring what a skilled filmmaker he is, how adept he is at directing actors and at giving them interesting characters to play, I found myself having a hard time connecting to anything happening in the film.
Some of that is certainly the pacing and general lack of plot, but I think it's the combination of that with the Pulp Fiction-like splitting of focus between Dalton, Cliff, and Tate that feels less like spending time in the lives of these characters, and more like disjointed narratives. There are moments in those lives that are well-realized and effective, such as Tate stopping at a theater to see a movie
she's in, and delighting at the audience responding at all the right moments, or the tension of Cliff checking in on an old TV show pal whose ranch has seemingly been taken over by the Manson family. But none of it really connected in the end, for me.
On the positive side, the performances - particularly DiCaprio as Rick Dalton - are excellent. There's a vulnerability to his character (and I'm thinking primarily of his early scene with Al Pacino as a producer who lays out the reality of where his career is currently at in an off-hand and devastating way, as well as Dalton's filming of a guest spot on the TV series Lancer as that week's heavy) that had me rooting for him, and wishing he were more of the focus of the film. That Tarantino is as capable as he is of writing such a complex and vulnerable male character (and not for the first time - see also Max Cherry in Jackie Brown or Clarence Worley in True Romance) highlights one of my main issues with the movie.
Ultimately, Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood is about the clash between 1950's heroic white male masculinity (Pitt's Cliff Booth is war hero turned stuntman, and DiCaprio is a TV cowboy in the Steve McQueen mold) clashing with the 1960's counter-culture (represented by the presence of Charles Manson and his followers, and regular complaints by Booth and Dalton about "hippies." Along with that there's a weird sort of implied nostalgic jingoism at play, as Booth spars with a caricature version of Bruce Lee, while Dalton considers the possibility of having to go to Italy and star in "spaghetti westerns" a fate worse than death. That the closest thing to a heroic protagonist in the movie has a backstory wherein it's heavily implied that he killed his nagging wife and got away with it, but we're still meant to root for him and bemoan the loss of...something? I can't say that really works for me.
And that brings me to the elephant in the room of centering the film around Sharon Tate and the Manson Family. I can see an argument for this being a fairy tale version of this story that has a happier ending than the gruesome and tragic real history. There's also an obvious intention to shine a light on Tate as someone other than a victim or a footnote. But ultimately Sharon Tate in this film is a fetish object, a representation of idealized stardom, and never presented as a human being. And what ends up sitting less well is the way that, despite the ultimate revision, it's the knowledge of her real-life murder that represents the only real moments of tension in the movie. It feels exploitative in a way that a simple retelling of the actual events wouldn't. Because, in the context of the film, there is no effect for Sharon Tate, there's one for Rick Dalton - he gets his desired invitation to the Polanski/Tate home, set up earlier in the film as his chance to renew his career. In the end, Sharon Tate, Charles Manson, the Manson Family, and even Roman Polanski (existing here in his less-complicated, pre-rapist state) are plot devices in the story of Rick Dalton.
Shout-Out: The costume, make-up, art direction, etc., are all spectacular, as is the soundtrack, and do a wonderful job evoking the period setting of the film.
Final Thought: On paper, this movie should have been right up my alley. That it missed the mark might be down to Tarantino changing, might be down to my changing, or some combination of both.