I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino’s work. Ever since Reservoir Dogs I was hooked. He was a breath of fresh air on the movie scene which was, at that point, struggling to define itself for the new decade. I consider both this movie and Pulp Fiction as two of the ’90s most important movies because of the seismic effect they had on the industry. The ’90s was a decade of great cultural change, and Tarantino was a big part of that. In 1997, I was fortunate enough to play the role of Mr. Pink in a stage production of Reservoir Dogs, and preparing for the role gave me an even greater appreciation for Tarantino’s ear for dialogue. It’s not real, but he sure makes it sound like it should be.
So for me, a Quentin Tarantino movie is something of an event movie. It doesn’t matter what Marvel movies are scheduled for release in the same year, I’ll always look forward more to his work. Despite this, I’m not a Tarantino fanboy – Jackie Brown was a bit too slow for my liking and Kill Bill just felt self-indulgent to me – which isn’t to say I didn’t like them, I just didn’t like them that much. And speaking of self-indulgent, I think that’s definitely something he can be justifiably accused of. Like Stephen King, he’s become someone who could use the services of a better editor. While his movies contain some knockout scenes and some deft writing, there’s a tendency to have too many tangential moments, too many unnecessary scenes, leading to running times that ultimately work against the movie itself. And to me, this is the big flaw that got in the way of my truly enjoying his news movie, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
I have to say, I’m also a fan of DiCaprio’s – he’s always been an immensely watchable actor and someone who takes meaty parts that other name actors wouldn’t be up to. Titanic aside, there are few DiCaprio performances I don’t like, and like Tarantino, I’ll make a point of seeing whatever he’s in. I stumbled across the last hour of Shutter Island last week and sat through it – I just like to watch the guy act. Brad Pitt is someone I can mostly take or leave, to be perfectly honest. I can’t say I’ve ever watched a performance by him that rose above just okay. Except for this movie.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is mostly the story of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a 50s TV western star, now reduced to playing “heavy of the week” guest roles in other people’s shows as he heads toward middle age and beginning to understand what means for his career. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Dalton’s best friend, and one-time stunt double, now serving as Rick’s driver and handyman. Margot Robbie plays tragic actress Sharon Tate who is still at that phase in her career where being in movies is more of a thrill than a job, a year before her infamous murder at the knife end of Manson Family cultists. So is this a movie about the Manson murders, or a movie about a washed-up TV star? Well, it’s both, but skews heavily toward the latter. I was wondering how this movie would tie into the murders, and came away a little bit underwhelmed. It almost felt like the Sharon Tate storyline was stuffed into the movie, like when you’re trying to get that one last piece of clothing into an already full suitcase. I’d read somewhere that Tarantino had written a screenplay about the Manson murders, but that’s being far too generous to the plotline of the eventual movie. To say Margot Robbie’s role as Sharon Tate is slim is being kind. She exists almost purely so the camera can linger on her legs and arse as she walks, which felt crude and exploitative to me, given that her murder is one of Hollywood’s (the place, not the movie) darkest episodes. Tarantino, for whatever reason, reduces her to that of a walking, giggling Barbie doll. And then there’s Charles Manson, who appears in an extremely brief cameo role, but the scene is not played by Tarantino as containing any hint of dread whatsoever. I suppose, given how the movie ends, there’s a very specific reason for that, but it’s only something I considered in retrospect; as the scene played out it felt like an odd choice.
Like most of Tarantino’s work, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has a strangely disjointed, episodic feel, where the unfolding storyline takes a few circuitous route choices toward the end, and I mostly like that. I liked it here too, but felt that Tarantino seriously overcooked this aspect. There are too many scenes featuring Dalton in his heyday that are cute, but almost feel like Tarantino fan service, a tip of the hat and a wink to his fans. I didn’t eat these up. And there’s one extended sequence of Dalton filming his latest guest star appearance on a Western that’s good, but ultimately adds almost nothing to the story or the character. You get the strong sense that the one pivotal scene of the show marks a redemptive moment for Dalton’s career, but next thing you know, he’s heading to Rome to make the spaghetti westerns he never wanted to do in the first place. It felt like a dead-end moment to me, negating the 20 or so minutes that had gone before.
Structurally, I felt a lack of consistency in the writing. In numerous scenes, you feel that the movie is Rick Dalton as seen through the eyes of Booth, his long-suffering friend, but in other scenes it’s just a straight Dalton vehicle, and that made the movie feel unfocused. And it’s too bad, because whenever Pitt is called upon to carry the movie, it turns out that he’s the best thing in it. Whereas Dalton is a bag of anxieties, regrets, and self-recriminations, Booth somehow just sails through life with an easy-going, laconic nature – despite the fact he has an open secret that’s led to him being largely ostracized by the studios. Because of this, he lives in a beaten-up trailer within earshot of a drive-in movie theater, while Dalton relaxes in the pool in his modest Benedict Canyon home, next door to where Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate have moved in. Booth is by far the most interesting of the two roles, and given that, it’s a curious casting on the part of Tarantino. Booth would have played to DiCaprio’s strength as an actor more so than the relatively shallow Dalton, but then you wouldn’t have gotten a truly impressive performance by Brad Pitt, whom I think gets all the key scenes. As a brief aside, I think I should mention two scenes – one that features Bruce Lee, and one with Steve McQueen, notable for specific reasons. I can’t say I was ever a fan of Lee, but I always had the impression his work was respected well enough in Hollywood, so it was unusual to see him portrayed by Tarantino as an arrogant, egotistical blowhard. I mean, it’s possible that’s the guy he was on set, but the general public would never know that. The other mention goes out to the makeup artists and Damian Lewis for their depiction of Steve McQueen, which I thought was uncanny. I’m a big McQueen fan, and I really appreciated that appearance, even though it was nothing more than a cameo.
You might be wondering how all this ties into that fateful night in 1969, when Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Susan Atkins brutally murdered Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski in 10050 Cielo Drive, carrying out the orders from Charles Manson, but to tell you that would be a spoiler of monumental proportion, considering how it all unfolds. Suffice it to say, I actually loved this part of the movie for a number of reasons, not the least of which is what happens in this extended scene, and its implications for the entire movie itself – and what the title of the movie really means. Does that sound too cryptic? It probably is, so you should just watch it and experience the ending for yourself.
There’s a lot to like in the movie, but for every great scene, like Booth’s visit to Spahn Ranch, there are two which just meander and stay on the screen too long. Case in point, is when Dalton returns from shooting his westerns in Italy – I didn’t think this time jump added anything significant whatsoever. My wife thought some of the movie was boring, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I can understand why she thought that. The movie only really comes alive when Pitt is onscreen, and he not only holds his own alongside DiCaprio, he overshadows him. In a weird kind of way, Pitt has seemed to be on a slow slide towards mediocrity for a couple of years now, but like John Travolta in 1994, Tarantino provided him with what may well be the best role of his career. While I don’t care for acting awards, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t recognized by some big nominations.
On the whole, not the best Tarantino movie by a wide margin, but at least it provided me with one of the best performances of the last couple of years.
© Andrew Hope, 2019