Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Emile Hersch, Al Pacino
Tarantino returns with another epic alternate-history adventure set in the fairytale land of 1960s Los Angeles. The ninth or tenth film (depending on your definition) in his filmography largely acts as a 2 and three-quarter hour homage to the Hollywood Renaissance of the 60s and 70s, while pivoting around one of the most infamous and brutal acts of murder in American history.
With a filmography which boasts some truly staggering entries, to say that the global expectations for this film were high would be an understatement. Setting his eyes on Hollywood after more than 20 years of experience under his belt and wielding the height of acting talent, Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood presents as an ideal opportunity for him to add another jewel to his shining catalogue of genre-defining films.
This ambition seems to be in good hands as we are introduced to Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (DiCaprio and Pitt, respectively) through purposefully hammy footage of their once-loved 50s TV western, Bounty Law. We appear to hit the ground running, as we are then taken on a tour through 60s Los Angeles, bouncing along to infectious soundtrack of funk rock. It is a bright and lively beginning to this long story, and will allow you settle in and immerse yourself in what appears to be another wild and vibrant ride into the 'Tarantino-verse'.
This energy present in the opening scenes is quickly lost. Before long the film becomes dreadfully bogged down in the minutiae of the characters lives with little direction or energy. Numerous driving sequences soon become tedious, and the regular subverting of expectations simply summons impatience rather than intrigue. At almost three hours, Once Upon a Time is a film in which every minute can be felt, and viewers may find themselves quickly boring of the admittedly aesthetically pleasing setting, and wishing away the time until something - anything - exciting happens. It is not unlike Tarantino to produce films which are noticeably light on plot, but while this has been largely successful in the past, Once Upon a Time may be missing a few vital components.
Pitt and DiCaprio deliver solid performances which are still only second best to their previous Tarantino contributions. DiCaprio's Rick Dalton and Pitt's Cliff Booth - the latter being the stunt double to the former - are best when they are together, with their warming, if not unbalanced, male friendship driving many of the scenes the share, which are far too few. Alone, they offer interesting and expressive takes on each of their characters; Dalton's hilariously tumultuous mood, is nicely juxtaposed against the breezy coolness of Pitt's Booth. But they still lack the magnetism that many other of Tarantino's typically superbly written characters possess.
This is perhaps not the fault of the actors themselves, but rather due to an aforementioned vital component of this film being missing. From the opening scene of his directional debut Reservoir Dogs Tarantino's penance for dialogue has not only been one of his greatest strengths but also a hallmark of his film-making style, turning unimportant conversations and topics into iconic and widely known film quotes. Time spent with characters in Tarantino films tends to be long, and so compelling dialogue is imperative in helping us want to spent this time with them. While many would happily following Vincent and Jules around in their car all day long as they discuss cheeseburgers and foot massages, Rick and Cliff's conversations are far less compelling.
Margot Robbie demonstrates one of the most perfect casting choices ever made, recreating Sharon Tate right before our eyes. Despite her undeniably start power, however, Tarantino gives her surprising little to do, with her only occasional scenes typically following her around as she goes about her life. As Tate she personifies innocence and purity, and while her portrayal is one which we only sparingly witness from a distance it serves powerful reminder that something serious is afoot in their fairytale story, and only amplifies the tragedy of the tale.
The final 30 minutes taking a different storytelling approach, and starts to demonstrate the classic Tarantino flair which is present in arguably all of his previous films. A narrator with a familiar voice steps in, the pace accelerates and the directors affection for violence returns in full force. As with many of his films, such brutality will likely summon controversy from most viewers, but the climatic final scenes are superficially entertaining at the very least - on repeat watches, however, given the relative recency of The Manson Murders, this brutality may begin to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
In one line: Despite being fantastically realised, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood misses those quintessential Tarantino quirks which have elevated his previous films.
If you would like to hear more of my and Mike's spoiler filled thoughts on Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood check out episode 17 of The Movie Marathoners Podcast! Find them on Twitter at @moviemarapod!