The release of a new Quentin Tarantino film is an event. Even if it’s not his 9th. It’s really not his 9th – by my count it’s either 10th or 11th. You generally know what to expect from QT, so you’ve got to give the man credit that he’s doing something a bit different for much of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD.
Former Hollywood heartthrob Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is past it, and his industry knows it. Stuck in a rut of demeaning TV villain guest star roles, Dalton is only kept a functioning human being by his stunt double-turned-gofer Cliff Booth, who himself has a possibly dark past and a go-nowhere career. The Swinging Sixties are drawing to a close, Hollywood is changing and opportunities are aplenty for rising stars like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who lives on Dalton’s street, but can he find a place for himself again or is he condemned to irrelevance?
The first half is pretty restrained as far as Tarantino films go. No violence, relatively little swearing, not even much showboating in the script. We just follow Rick and Cliff looking back at when they mattered and forward to the not-too-distant future when they most likely will not. We then progress to palpable menace and Acting for the second movement where some stuff actually happens before coming finally to an uncomfortable black comic horror finale.
Speaking of acting, yes it’s probably the best work from DiCaprio and Pitt for quite a while, the former throwing himself into full-on breakdown mode and the latter doing much of the heavy lifting with a more subtle performance (subtle, at least, when he’s not fighting Bruce Lee). Robbie as Sharon Tate dazzles when she’s on screen (sadly not all that often) and even gets to take pleasure in watching the woman she’s playing on a cinema screen at one point.
Once Upon a Time is focussed on a peculiar period in Hollywood and a very particular kind of star. While the maverick young filmmakers of New Hollywood rebelled and made their statements, some performers found themselves trapped in a demeaning cycle. Old Hollywood to New, TV to film, there were a lot of uncomfortable transitions.
The best scenes for me were a pair of intimate minor-key moments, one where a tired Cliff Booth gets home to his ramshackle trailer and feeds his dog and himself, the other where Rick Dalton gets a crash course method acting lesson from an eight-year-old (Julia Butters).
Tarantino knows what you think about his obsession with feet, so he’s going to shove them in your face. It almost gets parodic at points, with pretty much every female character with a speaking role making a point of drawing attention to their lower appendages for no real reason. Each to their own, but surely a fetish shouldn’t distract from what matters?
The Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) scene (and it is just one scene) didn’t really bother me. I completely understand why it might not have gone down well with audiences but the scene is from Cliff’s POV and it’s Cliff’s skewed view of the world and jealousy of anyone doing well in an industry that doesn’t really want him in it anymore.
The ending is shocking, but not in the way you expect a film with the Manson Family on the periphery to be. Without giving away exactly what happens, think in the same ballpark as what Tarantino did at the end of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Sharon Tate’s memory isn’t disrespected either; Tarantino is never anything but affectionate, bordering on reverent for her.
Hollywood the place will no doubt love this, because it’s about itself. Tarantino makes it clear in every frame he can that he’s done his research and he’s going to pay tribute to his favourite things from this period. The most entertaining material is how he pastiches the most popular TV shows (Westerns and Procedurals) and films (War and Spaghetti Westerns) of the time.
Much like everything else he’s done over the last decade-and-a-half, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is good but not great, with plenty to admire, a killer look and great performances but as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. Maybe I’ll pick up more on a second viewing, but as of now it did not meet the sky-high expectations Tarantino’s supposedly penultimate release had generated. It won’t be in my top 10 of 2019. It might not even be in my top 20. SSP