You know what you’re going to get in a Quentin Tarantino movie, right? Bold storytelling with a dash of sly humor. Kick-ass Kung Fu fighting. A painstakingly curated killer period soundtrack. Unnecessary narration. Blood of the gushing variety. References to obscure cinema. The writer-director has a unique style, and he’s an unparalleled master at it. For his ninth effort, he pays homage to his southern California roots via a yarn about a B-list actor slumming it in low-budget B-movies. Perhaps it’s only fitting that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood earns the same grade.
In Tarantino terms, that puts it somewhere below Kill Bill and above The Hateful Eight. Sure, certain scenes stand-out because they’re far-out — wait until a teary Leonardo DiCaprio pours his heart out to a no-nonsense child actress on the set of a TV show and an acid-tripping Brad Pitt attempts to eat dog food. But the film doesn’t add up to much as a whole. At least, not in the way that we expect from this kind of prestige project. You’ll have joy, you’ll have fun, but you won’t have a profound, need-to-see-it-again takeaway . . . well, other than Margot Robbie should have had more to do as doomed starlet Sharon Tate.
Now that the Oscar pressure is off, let’s enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for what it is: A rather breezy late-summer entry with a set-up that could only be written by a native Angelino-turned-filmmaker. It’s 1969 in Los Angeles, and TV star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is trying to figure out his next act. He was a big gun on a Western back in the early 1960s but now the landscape is changing. He’s constantly asked to play the heavy in small-screen guest-spots, which means he constantly bites it before the closing credits. He drinks, flubs his lines. A slimy, disapproving agent (Al Pacino) suggests he appear in Italian Western movies. “I’m a has-been!” he wails to Cliff Booth (Pitt), his best friend, chauffeur and stunt-double.
Cliff has own set of problems. He probably killed his wife. He lives in a trailer with his bulldog. He’s financially dependent on his boss. He ain’t getting any younger. Unlike Rick, Cliff exudes a California cool. The guy can drop-kick martial arts star Bruce Lee, no problem. He also has enough swag to resist the charms of an alluring Hippie hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley). She takes him back to her home at a sprawling and dilapidated movie ranch, where she lives with other cheery flower girls (played by the likes of Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham). Cliff meets them with a wary eye. What are they all doing there? What are they up to?
The answer is that they’re under the spell of a diabolical ex-con psychopath named Charlie Manson. And some of them will soon brutally murder Tate and three friends in her home on the hottest night of the year in 1969. To this day, it’s one of the most horrific events to rock the country. But if you didn’t know the backstory, you’d have little idea as to which direction Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were heading. Rick and Cliff’s narratives unfold at a too-leisurely pace, which is all ego on Tarantino’s part. Some aimless scenes just drift into the cloudless blue sky. (As much as I dearly loved and miss Luke Perry, his moment is superfluous at best.)
At nearly a three-hour running time, it’s a shame Tarantino didn’t shine a brighter light on Robbie’s character. Her Sharon Tate is a gorgeous cipher dressed up in white leather Go-Go boots. It’s possible she was this sweet and wholesome soul in IRL, dancing to records in her house up in the hills and partying with her husband, director Roman Polanski, at the Playboy mansion. Whatever. This is a wasted opportunity to learn more about one of the most tragic figures in Hollywood history beyond her chic fashion sense.
Instead, this is a story about two guys who don’t want to fade into the sunset. Both stars have worked with Tarantino in the past (Inglorious Basterds for Pitt; Django Unchained for DiCaprio) and he brings out the best in them. For two golden actors that refuse to wear Spandex, do CGI, star in blockbuster franchises and host Saturday Night Live, how refreshing to see them both be so relaxed and loose in these roles. Their onscreen friendship is both amusing and authentic. And frustrating: Every time their characters are on the cusp of going deeper than the water in Dalton’s backyard swimming pool, they pull back to go for the laugh.
The bar was high for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like, reaching-for-the-moon high. This level of talent doesn’t come along very often. And even though the laid-back epic is an overall letdown, an original spin on 1969-era Hollywood just on the cusp of shattering destruction is a welcome diversion compared to all the other familiar popcorn titles this season. Consider this our happily ever after.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens in theaters on Friday, July 26
Also published on Medium.