Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★

From writer/director Quentin Tarantino, the madman behind the surge of independent films in the 1990s, and the personality that some people just can’t wait to get rid of, comes his ninth (tenth?) feature film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie in this sprawling time capsule of a “bygone” era of film-making, and a heartfelt testament to his roots as a storyteller. Unfortunately, I didn’t gel with this film as much as I wanted to, and most of the film left a stale taste in my mouth as I patiently waited for Quentin Tarantino to deliver something special. He doesn’t. 

Saying “he doesn’t” might be a little unfair due to the subject matter and setting he so greatly admires, and his means of using that as a self-aware commentary on himself is heartfelt and honest. For a storyteller that’s become defined as a negative figure in the current socio-political climate, this was the right film for Tarantino to dial it down a notch or two. As someone who revels in the pop, zip, and zoom of frenetic, hyper-violent action and derogatory dialogue, this was very much the “mature” version of Quentin Tarantino I anticipated. It’s calmer, quieter, and far more concerned with studying the environment that molds it’s leading man into the character he becomes. It truly works as an inward dissection of having a voice and a face in an industry that is most known for its influence on culture. Molding the world’s perception of heroes, action heroes, legends, and faces of a giant conglomerate into a face that works negatively more than it does positively. 

On that front, this hits all those beats I anticipated and does so early and often, but that’s exactly where my issues lie. It becomes readily apparent what Tarantino is trying to say with this movie in the first 10, maybe 15 minutes of it. We eventually see Rick Dalton take on new situations that challenge his current, brief, mid-life crisis. A few of these scenes should be showcased as the epitome of what Tarantino can accomplish as a writer and director. Getting the absolute best performances out of his actors in the scene, writing it with flourishes, quirks, and envisioning it with perfect frame structure. Again, as beautiful as these moments are, albeit few, Tarantino stretches these ideas and this source of conflict to its absolute limit and sprawls it out without giving it any sort of exciting path to follow. Most of the movie spends it’s time stretching out core character traits that have already been established and explored through its setting. By the time we get to the middle of the movie, it feels redundant and recycled. Scene after scene with subject matter that could easily be cut in half or removed entirely and we’d still get the conclusion and story we end up getting. 

The camera pans and slowly feeds us these indulgences of Quentin, and for the most part I’ve always liked joining him on these journeys that are quintessentially Quentin Tarantino. The difference between Inglourious Basterds (or any of his other works that you may like) and Hollywood, is that there is a level of consistency to it’s plotting, it’s narrative, and it’s structure. Even something as sprawled out and bleeding as Pulp Fiction has some semblance of proper elevation to make the pay-off feel worth it. There is an idea of why the movie is as long as it is, it’s story is structured in a way that trusts the audience to draw connections through various scenes. I’m not saying this is “dummied down” Tarantino, I think it’s just overly self-indulgent Tarantino and it proves to be a detriment to the entire movie. 

If the source of conflict is internal, an allegory for Tarantino and his personal hardships with coming to grips that Hollywood is transitioning out of his era, then that conflict is resolved roughly 90 minutes into the movie at most. The next hour and a half doesn’t have much of a conflict or one that we can become attached to. It rides the knowledge of knowing where this story may lead (and he almost got me), but it becomes transparent because we have no reason to empathize with the protagonist of that looming conflict unlike Rick within the confines of this narrative. Tarantino dices up history once again to create a branched off fantasy of Hollywood, but it loses the empathetic connection that he usually excels at. The reason I feel this way is because he couldn’t get out of his own head. Even if that’s the point, the creative decision he made, then that certainly doesn’t mean I have to like it. 

Feet, The Cinerama Dome, hand-drawn posters, gushing over 35 mm film print, Spaghetti Westerns, shifting perspective, and more, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is quintessential Quentin Tarantino to a fault. Cuddling up with overly self-indulgent imagery and screenwriting that prolongs a story that could have been concluded in under two hours. Swapping efficiency for meandering, emotionally detached conflict in it’s latter half and concluding it in a way only QT could do it, just to make us laugh and forget about what the hell just happened for the last 70 minutes. It’s a story that is written like a final college thesis and by God is it personal, heartfelt, admirable, and the potential swan song that perfectly sums up one of the most prolific filmographies of all-time. It’s industry changing, genre defining, history switching, gut-bustingly hilarious film after film, and Tarantino uses this film as a tribute to his passions, his fetishes, and himself. It’s a film only Quentin Tarantino could make. It’s technically proficient, beautifully shot, tremendously acted by every single cast member, occasionally funny, and a perfect allegory not only for the creator, but the star of these movies. 

Our passions are rooted from an era. Always. We paint a picture of ourselves through that time period we desperately wish we could be a part of, but sometimes we grow out of that. Sometimes… that era grows out of us. There will come a time in all of our lives where we will realize that we are being transitioned out as a new beginning transitions in. Similar to the Westerns being “replaced” by Space movies, Tarantino realizes that his time is coming to an end just like “The Golden Age” did, and his means of coping with that is by making a movie about that final run. That star that defined an entire era of movies, that star that got all the checks, dominated the discussions, and that screen time on the stations, but no one can beat the inevitability of time. This is a movie filled with melancholy, it’s a movie about something I connected with and am entirely afraid of, but that movie is only 90 minutes long and not 161. That movie is focused, efficient, and thematically resonant. That movie is in this movie, but it doesn’t make up for all of the time it wastes pumping it’s fist in the air to the tune of, “Don’t You Forget About Me.” Like we ever would...

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gets a 63/100

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