Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood

Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Damien Lewis, Austin Butler, Julia Butters, Luke Perry, Mike Moh, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Bell, Clifton Collins, Jr, Nicholas Hammond, Damon Herriman, Costa Ronin, Lena Dunham, Lorenza Izzo, Rafal Zawierucha, James Landry Hébert, Martin Kove, Samantha Robinson, Brenda Vaccaro, Dreama Walker, Rachel Redleaf, Harley Quinn Smith, Rumer Willis, Maya Hawke, James Remar, Michael Madsen.

“All the streets are silent… except when Rick Dalton’s got a fucking shotgun, I’ll tell you that”

From his directorial debut in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, you’ve got to hand it to Quentin Tarantino for maintaining the amount of interest and desire for his filmmaking contributions. Starting as a mere video store clerk to the pinnacle of the film industry is the stuff of dreams for many people and he actually made it happen for himself. It’s fitting then that he turns his focus onto Hollywood itself and uses his extensive and esoteric knowledge to explore the industry and the many influences that have played a part in his own development as a filmmaker.

Plot: Los Angeles 1969, at the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age, once highly popular TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is seeing his career falter after a series of bad choices. His stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) has also been reliant on work through the success of Dalton’s career. After some advice from producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), Rick decides to get involved in spaghetti westerns which turns his career back around and he’s able to sustain his high-class lifestyle in the Hollywood hills where his neighbours are director Roman Polanski and actress wife Sharon Tate. However, a fateful night at the hands of the Manson family is soon to pay his luxury neighbourhood a visit.

Tarantino’s 9th and penultimate film (apparently he’s hanging up his spurs after his 10th) is a very handsome and creative endeavour. You get the impression that he’s really enjoying himself exploring an age of Hollywood that’s close to his heart and he has previously expressed that the screenplay itself is his most personal work. Even the title is a homage to Sergio Leone’s films who was a director that hugely influenced him and was evident in his previous film The Hateful Eight. Apparently he spent five years writing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a novel before realizing a film script would better suit the material. In many respects it’s fodder for a film buff like Tarantino as essentially he’s rejoicing in making a movie about making movies.

As always with Tarantino, there’s an abundance of style and his usual craftsmanship is fully on display; the meticulous attention to detail on the setting and style of the 60’s, the pop cultural references, the ensemble of character actors and even the occasional foot fetish. That said, it’s the casting of DiCaprio and Pitt that’s the undoubted major draw here. Tarantino once described their pairing as “the most exciting star dynamic duo since Robert Redford and Paul Newman” and he’s not wrong. Their interactions certainly don’t disappoint but they really take a grip of their roles when he has them parting company for a portion of the film and they are both allowed to explore their characters in more depth. DiCaprio really is quite great. He’s shown his ability for comedy before in The Wolf of Wall Street and once again he delivers his performance with a finely tuned humour. Despite Rick’s on screen success, he’s somewhat ignorant and pathetic and someone who’s solely driven by his ego. DiCaprio’s handling of the character is brilliant, though, as we seen him slowly begin to crumble and become a stuttering fool. In one of the films funniest scenes, we see him in his trailer after fluffing his lines on a movie set alongside Timothy Olyphant’s consummate professional actor and the sheer personal turmoil he’s in is both tragic and hilarious as he looks at himself in the mirror and threatens to kill himself if he can’t raise his standards.

Pitt, meanwhile, is the epitome of confidence and enigma. Cliff has been washed up in the film business for a long time but he simply doesn’t give a shit as he just breezes through life taking whatever comes his way. There’s a cocksure arrogance to him and even a sub-plot that questions whether or not he actually killed his wife with a harpoon while on a boating trip. Its this very enigmatic nature to him and the fact that being a stunt double, he’s not adverse to a few scrapes here or there or getting his hands dirty. His best scene comes to the fore in a hand-to hand combat scene with Bruce Lee (uncannily played by Mike Moh) and is as equally funny as the aforementioned DiCaprio moment.

The film has many great scenes and interactions, as you’d expect from Tarantino, but that’s also where the problem lies. Essentially that’s all they are and in some cases they don’t seem to serve an overall purpose sometimes. I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the entire film is a series of scenes interwoven into a very, very loose narrative. Tarantino is known for his great writing but there’s something amiss here. Something that prevents the film from anchoring these moments which results in that all too prevalent self-indulgence that Tarantino’s latest films seem to possess. He even leaves the rest of his impressively assembled cast with little do when there was so much potential from them. Damien Lewis, for example, is a perfect fit for Steve McQueen but he gets one brief scene and then he’s gone. The same goes for so many others, mainly Damon Herriman’s Charles Manson and a sadly underused Al Pacino. I mean, why would you even have Pacino at your disposal and not give him anything to do? The biggest surprise, however, is Margot Robbie. She receives top billing alongside the two main stars but has little dialogue to speak of and isn’t required to do very much but dance around in her 60’s get up and walk around looking beautiful. I also found her scenes quite boring which upsets the flow of the near 3 hour running time. Added to which, we then get an unexpected voiceover from Kurt Russell two thirds into the film to start wrapping things up for us. The same thing happened in the latter part of The Hateful Eight and it feels as condescending and disjointed now as it did then. The one positive from this sequence, however, is that during this time that we get to see DiCaprio in some marvellous old school film posters alongside the likes of actors Joseph Cotton and Telly Savalas before the film culminates in true explosive Tarantino fashion. Let’s face it, he rarely ends his films without throwing in a bit of ultra-violence and indulging his bloodlust and yet this is another plot development that doesn’t sit right. As he had previously done in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino has his made-up characters interact with real ones and changes the course of history. I loved Basterds until Quentin’s audacity got in the way towards the end and I had similar feelings here for the same reasons.

If I can digress a little to come to a conclusion, there’s a telling scene midway in the film where Pitt’s Cliff Booth visits a range that’s now used as Charles Manson’s commune. In this sequence, there’s an abundance of tension. However, after a magnificent build up, the sequence comes to nothing and results in deflation. This pretty much sums up the feeling of the entire film. There’s greatness all over the place but it ends up feeling less than the sum of its parts. It would be remiss to ignore the attention to detail that Tarantino so obviously pours into this homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood as it’s awash with qualities; DiCaprio and Pitt are particularly brilliant but, overall, it’s just a series of vignettes tied loosely together with an ending that feels tacked on. That’s a problem that lies with the script and it simply comes down to the fact that there isn’t one but if you can get over that then you can almost enjoy the revisionist fiction as much Quentin himself seems to be.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Burt Reynolds was originally cast as George Spahn, the ranch owner, but he died before he was scheduled to shoot his scenes. Bruce Dern replaced him in the role.

3 Responses to “Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood”

  1. There’s greatness all over the place but it ends up feeling less than the sum of its parts. YES
    Also, I would add that singularly Pitt and DiCaprio are good, together, they lack chemistry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I watched it twice and still really struggled with a rating. There definitely some great work going on but it just felt a little too much Tarantino rambling again and it felt a messy. I enjoyed DiCaprio and Pitt together but they developed their roles better when apart.

      Like

  2. […] Movie review on Marked movies […]

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