**1/2 out of ****
(for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements)
Released: July 26, 2019
Runtime: 161 minutes
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Al Pacino, Julia Butters, Emile Hirsch, Austin Butler, Maya Hawke, Madisen Beaty, Timothy Olyphant, Mike Moh, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Nicholas Hammond, Damien Lewis, Lena Dunham, Lorenza Izzo, Damon Herriman
A few years ago (around the release of his eighth movie), Quentin Tarantino declared that he would only make ten films. I now understand why: with his ninth, Tarantino is starting to repeat himself.
While no one expects him to actually follow through on that declaration, Quentin’s working theory is that many great directors went on for too long, making subpar work after their cinematic primes, gliding on autopilot to diminishing returns. In a rare act of humility, Tarantino conceded he’s likely no better and wants to avoid the same fate.
He must have been particularly sensitive to that possibility while writing the screenplay for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood because, with it, that fear is becoming a reality.
Make no mistake, Tarantino remains one of the elite auteurs of our time and one of the best American directors ever. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood – set in 1969, during the transition from Old Hollywood to New, set against the backdrop of the Manson Family murders – only confirms that. Tarantino continues to shine as a master of the craft and, more specifically, in his signature throwback exploitation. For good measure, throw in being a genius of plot construction, delicious dialogue, and a distinguished curator of soundtracks.
But for the first time, it’s not fresh. Once Upon A Time is exactly what you expect from him.
It’s vibrantly alive, a richly detailed paean to Retro, fully transporting us to an exciting time and place as completely as a film can, but unless it happens to be your first Tarantino experience it’s never surprising. He orchestrates it all with flair and bravado (if you can see it on a 70MM or 35MM film print, do it) but he also liberally steals from himself. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s version of fan service.
There are worse things, certainly, and QT pandering to his own impulses is still better than most of what you’ll pay money for at the multiplex. But great filmmakers, ultimately, are judged against their own work; by that standard, Quentin is playing it safe. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is Tarantino’s most risk-averse entry to date (which is saying something when you consider that he’s taking on Sharon Tate and the Manson murders).
Some may put a more positive, praise-worthy spin on that fact, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Once Upon A Time finds Tarantino at his most restrained, both in content and temperament, since Jackie Brown – and arguably ever. Until the explosive finale, Tarantino celebrates the end of the studio era (and a certain kind of innocence, even in the age of the sex-and-drugs counterculture) but with a ruminative melancholy, at times sweet and tender.
A reflection of that: Once Upon A Time works primarily as a character study, with rich arcs evolving through various vignettes and set pieces. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play the central buddy duo: a washed-up TV Western star named Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stuntman best friend Cliff Booth (Pitt).
As an actor, DiCaprio is at his best when a role requires the most of him, and Rick Dalton requires everything. The more Dalton descends into an existential crisis of career and identity, the better DiCaprio gets. He lays bare the broken soul of an artist yearning for relevance and purpose. This is peak DiCaprio, so raw and mesmerizing and moving that even scene-stealing newcomer 9-year-old Julia Butters – in her strong support as a precociously focused young actress who helps Dalton get his groove back – never overshadows him.
Pitt is almost his equal, matching in charisma while countering with cool confidence. His only drawback (as is so often the case in his career) is a forced drawl. Regional accents and vocal affectations are not Pitt’s strength, diminishing an otherwise effective, complex perf of a guy we admire even as we question his mysterious past. He and DiCaprio make quite the pair while also carrying centerpiece sequences on their own (Dalton in a defining scene on-set, and Booth during a Western-styled showdown that builds with Hitchockian suspense).
Then there’s Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, the young pregnant actress and most notable victim of the Manson killings. She’s given a lot of screen time but few words, and Tarantino doesn’t initially show his hand as to why he’s featuring her so prominantly. Throughout the first act she seems little more than a sexy muse who’s oblivious to her pending fate.
But when her own centerpiece scene finally arrives (in a movie theater), Tarantino’s poignant intent reveals itself. Once Upon A Time isn’t just a love letter to Hollywood; it’s a eulogistic lament for Sharon Tate.
Robbie beams in the role, and you can feel Tarantino’s longing to reach across the expanse of time to protect her, but all he can do is honor and mourn her. It’s all so beautifully done, especially in retrospect. This portrayal of Sharon Tate – a shared achievement between Robbie and Tarantino – is the one thing from the film that continues to linger and grow in my mind beyond my initial experience with it.
And yet, despite so many aspects to individually praise (including a funny and provocative depiction of Bruce Lee, cloned to perfection by Mike Moh), the collective whole seems as if Tarantino is content with coasting. After two acts of resorting to his old bag of aesthetic tricks, he builds to a finale that rehashes one of his most famous narrative ones.
The setup is so obvious, in fact, that I was actually expecting Tarantino to subvert it. When he doesn’t, the result – as satisfying in the moment as it may be – feels cheap. As characters begin to throw punches, Quentin (creatively and thematically) pulls his. He copies himself yet again, and it’s a cop out. The choice doesn’t dishonor the memory of the real-life victims, thankfully, but it shows that Tarantino was simply too scared to deal with it honestly or courageously.
Those who love Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (and they are legion) find it to be a glorious culmination of Quentin’s oeuvre. For those more mixed on it (example: me) see it as a regurgitation. Subsequent viewings will likely reveal more nuanced rewards, but it’s difficult to imagine changing that fundamental ambivalence.