There is no doubt Quentin Tarantino belongs to the Greatest American Film Directors Club, and Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg should be greeters at the door (Big Kahuna Burgers served inside). His knack for non-sequential storytelling and intertwining narrative is impeccable and legitimately his. Cherry-topping that, his testosterone-prone dialogue fires as rapidly as the bullets that protrude through well-scripted characters you both love to love and love to loathe. Basically, you know when you are watching a Tarantino movie, and you know when other directors try to be Tarantino.
Inevitably (and much like the greats mentioned above), where Tarantino has broken cinematic ground – Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), and Reservoir Dogs (1992), he has also treaded water, and his latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, not only treads, it never breaches the surface.
I think most will enjoy the nostalgically and even fetishistically accomplished setting, but they will also find the characters less fleshed out and more like pawns, basking in the scenery and inadvertently awaiting the Sharon Tate demise we already anticipate.
Now, don’t get me wrong – the hip, postmodern auteur still has the cinematic chops, and he successfully conceives an illustrious 1969 Hollywood where psychedelia clashes with show business, and the true story of Sharon Tate and Charles Manson enter into the mix. Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Revere & the Raiders rock over ripping, gas-guzzling engines and hippy peace signs, while fluorescent marquee signs light up as the sun lights down.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays TV star Rick Dalton, who wavers in and out of self-confidence and movie industry washup. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stunt double, housekeeper, and friend. They live right next to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. You can imagine the possibilities of historical fiction and narrative overlap.
It is too bad that it takes Tarantino two hours to reach these possibilities, and when he finally does, the breaking point is expected and less impactful. Without spoiling the ending, I wish it occurred sooner so that I could keep getting to know Rick and Cliff. The Tate/Manson/Polanski ordeal is superfluous kryptonite and obvious time-filler, no matter how much Tarantino tries to style it up.
Brad Pitt’s character and performance is, by far, the most charming and memorable. A case can be made that he transforms Tarantino’s film into the latest “buddy movie,” and this is a good thing. “Leo” hangs in with his close-ups and a powerful Western monologue scene with teary eyes, but when Tarantino takes away his vulnerability, he becomes less likable. Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate and that is it. She plays Sharon Tate on paper and logistically to the movie’s premise. That, really, is it.
I have never said this about any Tarantino movie, but this one places style over substance and character development, and whether it is intentional or not, it is another misstep of the 21st century when movie-making is so far from movie-making.
There is a scene when Sharon Tate spontaneously decides to watch her own movie – The Wrecking Crew – at the local movie theatre. Humbly disguising herself, she revels in all the laughter and reactions from her seat neighbors as they watch her onscreen. I couldn’t help but think of Tarantino doing the same thing at his movies. In most cases, he would deserve the accolades, and he should be proud of them. But, with this movie, it seems to only be his movie, his beloved pet project. He might have enjoyed his trip down memory lane, and we might have enjoyed the postcard, but the characters end up left behind.
I will continue to rewatch Quentin Tarantino movies, probably faster than they remake movie after movie in America. But, yes, this will be the first Quentin Tarantino movie that I will just call so-so and rewatch less. I hope his tenth and last film goes back into groundbreaking territory. It kind of has to since Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg are still working and defying age.
Don’t succumb, Quentin. You’ve got one more.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood *** out of *****