Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

With pacing about as slow as a Cadillac cruising down Sunset Boulevard, but also a spirited dynamic between the leads DiCaprio and Pitt, Quentin Tarantino’s latest effort doesn’t so much excel as it does satisfy. Framed around Hollywood in 1969, it follows the two parallel narratives of a fading career (DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton) and a rising one (Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate).

The two stars happen to live next door to each other, but have almost no interaction over the course of the story. And if you’re in the prime demographic of 18-35 year olds, you likely have no idea that Sharon Tate was a real movie star, and the primary tension of setting the story in this time is that it was when she was murdered by the crazed Manson family.

Such context isn’t properly given though, only inferred. So, while baby boomers and weirdos who actually know about Hollywood history (like me) will appreciate the climax the film is building towards in its final act, everyone else will likely observe that such an ending comes out of nowhere.

The rest of the movie is consistent with this haphazard construction. There’s little connective tissue to the scenes, Margot Robbie especially feels shortchanged since her bits as Tate are almost entirely superfluous to the main narrative.

The rhythm is very stop and go, with several segments either going on for longer than they probably should, or possessing no purpose to furthering the story. This may have been Tarantino’s attempt to make a film more akin to real life, and life on a film set, where much of the action is in bursts and the bulk of the time is spent waiting around. His trademark hyper violence is rather muted here, but that does give the payoff in the final act a much greater impact.

I hate to use the word sloppy, yet I can’t help but feel that Tarantino has become somewhat careless with this effort. A narrator pops up early in the movie only to disappear for the next two hours, then show up unexpectedly again to awkwardly exposit about a 6 month time jump in the narrative. The same can be said of Al Pacino, who appears in no more than a couple scenes. One senses a good chunk of the picture got relegated to the cutting room floor.

Additionally, most of the elements seem borrowed from his earlier work, and that goes for the cast as well. DiCaprio returns from Django Unchained to adopt a similar southern accent as Calvin Candie, and Pitt’s stuntman a little too closely resembles his turn as Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino regulars Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, and Michael Madsen all show up to provide distracting cameos, and like many of the cruising scenes, it becomes a game of spotting the Easter egg.

The technical elements are all lavish, and the recreation of late 60’s Hollywood is highly convincing. Tarantino’s typical humor is there, and despite the aimless direction and lack of narrative drive, it’s somehow still a fun, engaging watch. However, this doesn’t rank among his best work, and it’s too bad I couldn’t get more into it than I did. I was really looking forward to this one, too. Three and a half stars.

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