Movie Review | Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood
Movie summary: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood's Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. (IMDb)
Up front I need to confess that Quentin Tarantino's movies have never really been my thing and have never touched that sweet spot of cinematic satisfaction. That isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed his movies - far from it. I really like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs (especially the latter), and I certainly enjoyed Kill Bill Volume 1 very much - I just didn't love them as much as others seemed to.
I guess that's why I didn't like just how much Tarantino indulged himself in this movie. What was needed to get me to truly invest in Once Upon a Time... was either a ruthless editor or producer just to tell the director 'no' on occasion. You could easily cut at least an hour out of this movie and not lose anything of any significance as far as the character work or 'story' is concerned.
The perfect examples of this are the multiple scenes following people driving around listening to the radio. It's just an excuse for Tarantino to add more of his favourite songs to the movie and doesn't add anything other than wasted minutes of time. It's clear that Tarantino loves this era, but there's a little too much time spent on setting the feel of the time, beating the audience over the head with it.
Then there's the adverts and other scenes from TV shows and movies that Tarantino adds in - some of the shorter pieces work pretty well as they don't outstay their welcome, but some go on at length and you start wondering what movie you're actually there to watch. If you're like Tarantino and a fan of not only the era, but also the media of the time, then you'll almost certainly love every second of this. If you're not, you might find yourself checking how much longer you have to put up with it.
An actually significant problem these 'extras' cause is there are some scenes following the main characters engaging in fairly mundane, everyday routines that come across as boring and also unnecessary as a result. Without the other indulgences, they'd actually be useful in getting across how these people live their lives, but just add to the feeling of how slow the movie is and drag as a result.
I also can't understand why people are raving over DiCaprio in this when, for me, Brad Pitt gives by far the best performance in what also feels like the most important role. His role as Cliff Booth requires him to be funny, yet serious - both on his own and with DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, while also being physically capable and matching that muscle with intelligence.
DiCaprio's good, don't get me wrong, but his character doesn't really go anywhere and feels pretty one-note in nature - especially when contrasted with Pitt. His Rick Dalton is an alcoholic actor desperately clinging on to his past glories while his celebrity sheen slowly fades away - hardly the most original role in the world. There is obviously more nuance to it than that, but not much more.
At least Rick Dalton actually has a central role in the movie, with us really getting to know him as DiCaprio has fun playing up the quirks for all they're worth, whereas Margot Robbie is stuck effectively as window dressing. Robbie does what she can with the role of Sharon Tate, and is a talented enough actress to make the audience at least like her, but there really isn't much else to the character in the movie.
Once Upon a Time in... And that's arguably Hollywood's biggest failing: it requires so much outside knowledge to work properly. Like I said above, if you're a fan of the era, then you'll love, love, love this movie. Similarly, if you know what happened to Sharon Tate, then you might appreciate the character a little more, plus the ending might have a little more emotional heft to it.
If you go into this not really knowing anything about Tate, then all the scenes with Robbie will probably come across as a waste of time and leave audiences wondering why the movie spends a chunk of time following some random actress in Hollywood who doesn't have any involvement with the lives of Pitt or DiCaprio's characters.
Knowing the reality of what happened does also help to mitigate one aspect of the cartoonishly-violent ending, which is Tarantino depicting three people being killed and the glee with which the two women are brutally murdered and some women have justifiably complained about.
The fact that these two women were actually involved with what really happened, and have murderous intentions of their own, still doesn't really make up for the treatment they receive, nor the fact that it was clearly intended as comedic - successfully too, based on the reaction of the people in my screening.
Another problematic element is how Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) is depicted. Whether this fictional version of Lee is accurate to reality is for people who know more about the man, but there is one line that absolutely contradicts what he actually said about a potential opponent and leads me to believe that how Lee is shown probably isn't true to life either.
Also, it was incredibly disturbing to see how his portrayal was received: in 2019, should Hollywood really be making pretty much the only non-Caucasian character in the entire movie a figure of fun? With white supremacy ascendant in the west right now, it was unsettling as hell to be sat in a cinema with a majority white audience laughing at (not with) the non-white guy.
This review has a lot of strong criticism for the movie, but I still can't say that I disliked it at all. Again, I think the length of the movie is to blame for a lot of the above and you would eliminate most of the problems I had with Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood simply by cutting the movie down. Knock an hour off the running time and you'd almost certainly have a much more enjoyable and less problematic movie.
This is a really, really good movie when something's happening on-screen, and especially when Pitt and DiCaprio are together. Honestly, a number of their scenes are among the best I've seen in any movie so far this year and I loved watching them being effortlessly brilliant - I just wish we could've spent more time enjoying those parts of the movie, which would've made me enjoy it far more than I did.
Would I recommend seeing it? At the cinema, I would say 'yes', but only if you genuinely have the time to spare, as - if you include trailers and adverts before the movie - it'll take up just over three hours of your time when there isn't enough to the movie to justify that length of time. Otherwise it might be best to wait for DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, so you can save yourself some time and skip the less essential stuff.
Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is genuinely excellent when it feels like something is happening, but there are multiple long stretches which exist solely for Tarantino to indulge himself and pad out the running time. The great performances from Pitt and DiCaprio, and their incredible chemistry, aren't enough to save the film from being boring at times - unless you share the director's love for the setting.