director: Quentin Tarantino
writer: Quentin Tarantino
starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie
genre: Comedy | Drama
released: 26 July 2019 (USA)
In what is Quentin Tarantino’s most “personal” film is maybe also his most uneven and worst film to date. Now, that might sound harsh, but it’s also true. Where we fell in love with him for his genre film-making and characteristic pop cultured filled dialogue, he has managed to take another slight detour with his latest film. A fine dramatic retelling of how Hollywood was and how it could have been that steps over itself in territory already explored and with a narrative handling that on occasion is commendable and enthralling, while also unconventional and predictable by its third act.
In 1969 Hollywood Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a former star actor relegated to second tier guest work on hit network shows. By his side is his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who has become a personal assistant of sorts and will gladly do Rick any favor or chore. They both try to live the Hollywood life fully knowing they might have reached their peak and possibly not learning any lessons in the process. Living next to Rick is the latest Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who is soaking in the lifestyle and fame with her recent success and marriage. All three of them will get caught up in this story when Hollywood decides to have one of its subcultures invade and terrorize another in what is one of Hollywood’s most infamous and tragic nights.
If this wasn’t another Quentin Tarantino film we would be talking about the incredible dramatic adventure and rewrite of history. Nevertheless, it is also a story of chance, redemption and most importantly Hollywood. With its leading character of Rick Dalton being an actor on the way out and who wanted a second chance at the limelight. At the same time being a good friend to Cliff Booth, who we never found out if he did do that evil deed everyone in Hollywood thought he did in the film, but despite of it was kept close by to be Rick’s trusty right hand man. Then there is Sharon Tate who was living the dream life in L.A. and whose fate was all but known unless you’ve seen the film and know how differently it changes. Why these three characters have to interconnect is because Tarantino wished it did. SPOILERS AHEAD. Otherwise, it feels as if Cliff was left to hang dry by the end of the film in terms of a nice closing moment for his arc, with Rick & Sharon getting what they wanted in the end in this fictional timeline.
In many ways this film could have been three separate stories about various Hollywood-centric events and themes with Tarantino also being right in a sense that this is his closest film to ‘Pulp Fiction’ in terms of story-line layout (according to the film’s IMDb trivia “page”). All three of the characters stories would have all on their own been outstanding as every part of Hollywood during that time had a lot going for it and every individual scene in the film is enjoyable to watch for many different reasons from the artistic to the historical and also the mundane. Such as the dog feeding scene which is superb and that is not a joke statement. However, the film does have weird timing and execution issues every time it went from one story/scene to the other and left you with the odd feeling of not knowing of how much of what you were watching was integral to everything else that was going on in the film. A great example is when Rick has a guest part to play in a Western TV show. Initially, its slow and grinds its way to him being on set and confronted by another actor. And while at first you have the feeling this wont go anywhere it actually does and that’s how many of the scenes in the film feel. Not only because of the separation of the three characters but also because the film’s timeline jumps at times during past and present when it wants to gives the some extra insight on a character with a little backstory. Not to mention us the audience trying to figure out what the story is ultimately about for these people as it is kind of up in the air at times in the film and if the third will be really what all knew it would be. Having said that, the payoff at the end doesn’t nicely connect with the rest of the film and the kind of film you thought you were watching. Which was an experience of living and breathing Hollywood of the 60’s through QT’s eyes until the film with its third act decided to rehash a now QT trademark of rewriting history.
Naturally, in terms of the story-line methodology it could be easily attributed in part to how we in the year 2019 are told stories in a much more direct fashion with no nuance or pause for everything that could be happening in a characters life and what the director pleases to show. In this sense the film is wonderful with its world building efforts. Going in depth into the characters routine, behavior and state of mind which is impeccable. Its just the glue that sticks it together is what personally had me put off to falling head over heels with the whole affair. As this review is coming from a fan of QT’s work and having a lot of admiration of the pure cinematic film-making at hand from stunning driving scenes in L.A., to the crafty dolling out of exposition through flashback and the persistence to have long scenes that as mentioned before, feel like they drag as you don’t know their purpose at that given time, but on their own are impeccable and have most of the time great payoffs.
Which leads us to the ending where we briefly referenced, but didn’t delve into and how it wasn’t surprising as much as it was an inevitability the way the story progressed. Additionally, it’s maybe the first time in Tarantino’s career where tonally and as a storyteller is retreading older territory. As much as you can enjoy the journey of these characters and the scenes they were in, it couldn’t be to anyone a huge surprise with its third act’s conclusion and this might be the biggest problem with the film. SPOILERS AHEAD. We all knew the third act would be about Sharon Tate and the Manson family and Tarantino would most likely have some twist on it. However, because we have been in this exact situation before with his history rewriting in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ its now no longer a surprise or as fun, in addition to being too on the nose when the heroes win the day in such a glorious and gruesome manner. As when Rick and Cliff save the day it isn’t unexpected and nor is there a change in the characters from who they were as flawed individuals to their new status apparently with the ending. So on two levels this third act while funny and entertaining it wasn’t surprising or conclusive.
Despite being almost three hours long ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is great value for money in terms of entertainment and cinematic direction. Its an incredible production and adventure of the ins and outs of Hollywood while also the darker side during that period in L.A., were many people were straying off the beaten path. Despite the minor issues the film may have, its still worthy of your time.