Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

Let’s begin by stating the obvious, which is that QT likes his movies big, stuffed to bursting, with you name it: style, attitude, images, references to other films, dialogue. What I think his films tend to be weaker on—though by no means lacking in entirely—are ideas. QT would strenuously object to that—maybe you read some of the interviews he did around Django Unchained—but I think in the cold light of day, Tarantino’s recent films have not been as intellectually coherent as his own commentary on them has been. Respectfully, I would submit that Django Unchained, Hateful Eight, and Inglourious Basterds were not the elegant treatises masquerading as movies that Tarantino insisted they were. For one thing, they just had too much going on to be reduced to that. But also, they were all pretty jumbled, verging at times on misguided-- particularly Django.

But I would argue that Inglourious Basterds was more or less a perfect Quentin Tarantino film, whether by accident or design. It had some ideas about what it wanted to do, along with a reserve of real, actual human feeling. And the same madcap, maniac determination to entertain and satisfy an audience. The excess of that movie was the point. Everything sort of justified itself.

This film, in that context, is basically Django in terms of its looseness and its extreme confidence, but much more appropriate—set in a world that QT knows more about, and has more to say about, even if QT still doesn’t really know what it is exactly that he wants to say. This film benefits from QT’s proximity to its subject matter in a way that Django suffered from the opposite. It’s just as self-important but the tenderness, the pathos, and the catharsis register more, and the intellectual confusion matters less, because I’m not squirming in my seat, wondering why Tarantino is obsessed with having his actors use the N-word as often as fucking possible.

(To speak really quickly to the above: obviously in Django the point of the n-word’s usage was to dramatize what a hate-filled world those characters inhabited, and to make that as visceral as possible. I guess my argument against Django’s effectiveness as a movie is a formal one: the movie didn’t hit all its notes as resonantly as it could because it was trying to get too many different notes in, and was playing too fast. QT obviously wasn’t trying to make a sermon out of Django Unchained; but that’s subject matter that may actually require a sermon, and might not need a Quentin Tarantino movie.)

So, look, turning to the movie at hand (if, by some miracle, you've made it this far): Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the perfect subject matter for QT to gleefully riff and improvise over. He has such a natural feel for the era and the characters and the milieu. His interests in this film are coinciding with my interests in him as a filmmaker-- great!

This is a rich meal with some awesome courses, but also, inevitably, some sour bites too. For instance: my interpretation of the film is that it wants some ambiguity about whether Cliff killed his wife; I don't think it wants you to decide one way or the other, but it also wants to stack the deck a little in Cliff’s favor by making his wife out to seem incredibly obnoxious. I don’t know if I love any part of that; I also don’t think that you create ambiguity by being unclear about whether somebody did something abhorrent or not. Rather: you create ambiguity by putting characters in difficult situations, giving them difficult decisions to make, and letting the audience marinate in the complexity you’ve put before them. What this movie has done instead is it's set up an unsolvable either/or with grave consequences, and as currently constituted, is challenging us to give a likable character a pass on a murder because his wife was a harridan. It feels more like a casually misogynistic aesthetic problem to me than a challenging artistic decision.

The question of casual misogyny lingers around the edges of this movie, even though Tarantino has given the women in his films (including in this one) lots of cool roles. In this movie, we see some women get their asses kicked near the end and it’s honestly hard to watch (slight spoilers ahead). The current defense of this on twitter runs like, “they’re members of the Manson family and brutally killed Sharon Tate; they had what was coming to them.” My answer to that would be, the diegesis needs to stand on its own. My read of what was happening in this film was that there was some gross cult shit, the women were directed to do bad things by a very evil guy, and the film lingers a little too long on their gruesome deaths for me to be really comfortable with it. In the context of the film’s sort of slightly cartoonish violence, I think a little graphic violence here is justified, but perhaps not as much as what’s on screen. Satisfying kill scenes are part of the Quentin Tarantino cinematic universe; the gruesomeness of the deaths helps punctuate the relief you feel that the main characters are surviving. But I think there is a balance to strike that I’m not sure the film nails.

There is some beautiful shit in here about male friendship, about growing older, about taking pride in what you do and who you are, even if not that many people are there to appreciate or celebrate your contributions. In a movie that has at least a half-dozen stunning, beautiful moments (and an uncountable amount of great small ones), my two absolute favorites revolve around two different characters who each get a moment to take pride in their work.

And then, you have all these one-joke digressions and riffs and flashbacks that we cut to, many of which are great, but a few others that make you feel like you’re watching an episode of Family Guy. It’s all in the movie, man: the sweetness and the sadness, Tarantino’s self-indulgence and his relentless drive to entertain, his audacity in filmmaking and his reverence for the stuff that’s come before.

Whether it’s in the casting or the diegesis or the themes, every Tarantino picture so far has shown a palpable tenderness for the people that devote their lives to making movies. It’s probably his most endearing quality as a filmmaker, and it’s on full display here. This is a very hard movie not to like (I haven't even mentioned how absolutely gorgeous it is, how much of a feast for the senses). But I wish it was a little more careful and disciplined; that it had a little more regard for all the people in the background, the ones that don't give their everything over to the silver screen.

nickmangigian liked these reviews