Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

It’s a truism to say that all Quentin Tarantino movies are about cinema, but previously he’s tended use genre as a medium through which to channel his obsessions, however for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he’s dropped all pretence that this is anything other than a hymn to everything that he loves. What is most striking about his latest effort though, is just how wistful and nostalgic it seems for most of its runtime, giving it different tone to his past work. Normally his characters are obsessed with consuming and discussing pop culture, but here they are the creators of it, so a lot of the dialogue lacks the sharpness and referential quality that QT’s best writing has. That’s not to say it’s bad, and there are several scenes that really pop, but as with most of his recent output there’s a lot of filler or things that could and should have been pared down in editing. Some of driving scenes for a start, seemingly only there to show they really did shoot in Los Angeles rather than faking it in Atlanta like most productions these days.

OUaTiH's biggest problem is that it lacks a real narrative, so while there is an outline of a story, many scenes are tangential or even irrelevant to it. One gets the sense Tarantino just wanted to craft this moment in American filmmaking to just luxuriate in it, only to find he couldn’t bear to leave. Margo Robbie as Sharon Tate is an exemplar of this, she isn’t one of the main characters as all she really does in the film is dance at the Playboy mansion, go watch her own movie in a cinema and then eat out at a fancy Mexican restaurant with friends. She’s more an emblem of the era than anything else, she stands for everything that was swinging, sexy and cool about the late 1960s. So that being the case it’s hard to talk about Robbie’s “take” on the famous actress, because she’s just sort of there, but Robbie is one of the rare individuals who lights up any screen she’s on so is always a welcome presence.

The main focus is on the character of Rick Dalton, star of a few moderately successful films years prior, but now reduced to playing thugs on television. (Indeed, there's a running theme of television's omnipresence, it arguably plays a greater role in the plot than the movies, and one can't help but look at this in the context of Tarantino's troubled relationship with the medium. It's probably not reading too deeply into this to see the director's own fears about the small screen eclipsing his beloved cinema in the way the various characters orbit around TV.) Dalton's only companion is his former stuntman and now personal assistant/hetero life partner Cliff. It’s been clear since Blood Diamond (2006) that Leonardo DiCaprio had evolved past his pretty boy youthful roles and become a proper actor (although, admittedly, it took many other a lot longer to work this out), and Brad Pitt has rarely been better in a role that doesn’t call for much ACTING, but instead the very low-keyness of his performance sells the character and the world he lives in. This really is a buddy movie about these two guys, and while the film is overflowing with the famous faces of the era, those are mostly just background colour, there because the director just wanted to play with them in his sandbox, however briefly.

As you’d expect with any new QT flick there has been a lot of overwrought chin-stroking/online outrage in response to OUaTiH, so let’s shatter some of the more risible readings of this film. The first is that Dalton is supposed to be a stand-in for Tarantino himself, a guy who had his day but is now facing irrelevance in world that’s moved on. It seems to me the massive box office and broad critical praise of this movie (just as with all his previous ones) belies that claim, and while he’s talked about his career as a director winding down, that’s a self-imposed deadline it’s not confirmed he’ll adhere to. And keep in mind that Tarantino is decades younger than your Martin Scorseses and Steven Spielbergs, so he’s hardly a man out of time. The other is about the film’s supposed sexism in giving scant space to its female characters, but this too is a nothing criticism made by philistines who do things like count words of dialogue and insist that’s a useful metric. While QT does lack tact and subtlety in his personal life as well as in his movies, the guy who made Jackie Brown (1997) and the Kill Bill movies is one who can tell interesting stories about women in his own unique way.

Rather than all that tosh, one could perhaps see the film as an exploration of something Tarantino is responsible for from the other end: the career revival. Other than movie quotations, extreme violence and an over-fondness for a certain word African Americans often use to refer to one another, the most noteworthy thing about his career is his ability to take forgotten actors and give them the roles of their lifetime. Consider what he did for Harvey Keitel, Pam Grier and most famously of all, John Travolta (and there are plenty of others). So perhaps the Al Pacino character here could stand in for the director, granting those who were dismissed as over the hill one more shot at glory. Then there’s the whole thing about the Manson family, which I won’t get into as the film is still in theatres, however I will state that it’s interesting that Tarantino seems to have dropped the idea of having all his stories set in his more heightened world, and now seems more intent on righting historical wrongs of this one through celluloid. In both Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015) America’s history of slavery is ameliorated when black men take their revenge, while Inglourious Basterds (2009) gives humanity a do-over in World War 2 by having Hitler killed. Despite the extraordinarily sadistic violence that one resigns oneself to in every QT film (even when it’s not really needed, but we all know how much he adores those blood packs, as well as, one suspects, trolling his critics) one can almost see this as a sort of middle-aged softness. He used to depict the criminal underworld in very unsentimental ways, now he longs for a more just world, even if his brand of justice involves a lot of brutal killings depicted in lovingly gory detail.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is definitely entertaining, and Tarantino’s fans will, of course, proclaim it as the greatest film of the year. They’ll, also of course, overlook things like the narration and title cards that occur randomly, the whole thing about Cliff’s ex-wife that seems to serve no purpose narratively or thematically, the bit with Bruce Lee that likewise serves no purpose narratively or thematically, or that CGI really doesn’t belong in a Tarantino film and has never seemed more out of place. And beyond all that there’s a strange sort of emptiness to this film. It’s like a Victorian doll’s house, a beautiful evocation of a time and a place, but one that never quite comes to life. Again, my personal view is that Tarantino didn’t really ever have a story he wanted to tell, he just wanted to be in this world, to breathe its air and hang out with the beautiful people in the Hollywood hills, to share his passions. QT might once have been the “voice of a generation” but it seems these days he has less and less to say. Except on the subject of women's feet, he loves them more than ever and isn’t shy about letting everyone know.

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