Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, an all-star cast, teaming with Quentin Tarantino to present some curiosity set in 1969 Hollywood? This hooked people within 10 seconds of the teaser trailer.
Looks and feels like nothing else out in the marketplace and Tarantino still shows, at times, he has a knack for rapid-fire wit, clever storytelling ideas, and a vision for his films that is wholly and uniquely his own.
Even with some of the tarnish on Tarantino’s reputation over the years, this movie looks irresistible. The soundtrack, sets, costumes, all retain an authenticity that will appeal to lots of interested moviegoers.
Compliments and praise aside, does Quentin Tarantino have anything left to say? Honestly, I am not so sure.
161 minutes of a reflective, older, more thoughtful Tarantino film will leave some (many?) scratching their heads waiting for the writer/director’s quintessential moments which seldom, if ever come.
Honestly, what makes this such a major disappointment is that elements which would make a typical Tarantino movie awesome are here. But, there’s so much extraneous meandering, the movie feels bloated, lost, and aimless.
One of the most anticipated movies of the summer, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is billed as Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film and finds him glancing back 50 years to the Hollywood summer of 1969. The legendary writer/director is notoriously a student of film and though he was just six years old at the time this story takes place, he imagines the radiance, mystery, and awe of the Hollywood lifestyle and culture.
That summer changed America forever. We watched in awe as we landed on the moon with Apollo 11, scratched our heads at the shocking news of Ted Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne, and the tragedy of Chappaquiddick, a convict named Charles Manson began amassing a number of followers upon being released from prison, the Stonewall riots brought gay rights to the mainstream, while the Woodstock music festival defied the odds and became an iconic moment in music history. In a three-month span, a multitude of events occurred that influenced generations and are still talked about today.
Tarantino’s focus may be on Hollywood, but he is keenly aware of how vulnerable a time it was for America and how the allure of movie stars and the magic of the movies can always provide an escape. This likewise remains true today, even if movies are increasingly streamed and film has gone digital.
Our entry point to the world Tarantino envisions comes in the form of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former television and movie star who has seen his celebrity fall from the A-list as the 1960s have moved along. Taking stints on television as “the bad guy” to keep working, agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) advises him that he may be altering how audiences and producers see him if he continues on that path. He is clearly at a crossroads.
His best friend and stunt double/right-hand-man is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Sticking by Dalton’s side, he is also his driver, handyman, Cliff-of-all-trades, and looks out for Dalton day-in and day-out. They represent the charade and sacrifice of Hollywood - Dalton gets all the accolades in front of the camera for not completely doing all the work, while Booth accepts satisfaction of being the silent partner that makes Dalton look so good.
Together, DiCaprio and Pitt are brilliantly cast. Their energy, chemistry, and lived-in performances offer the best moments Tarantino has to offer in his 161-minute Hollywood love letter. The comedic timing each actor brings to their roles is infectious, and we are drawn to these enigmatic characters and portrayals. The two actors largely keep this thing afloat.
Once we establish our setting, Tarantino infuses numerous references to movies, celebrities, and pop culture from the time period. Though expected and anticipated, the razzle dazzle we have expected from the director’s previous films seems absent here. Clearly, Tarantino’s great affection for the Golden Age of Hollywood bleeds through, but his cavalcade of stars never really comes together. With the exception of an inspired sequence between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), the only celebrity featured with any substance at all is Sharon Tate, portrayed by Margot Robbie.
Tate’s appearance here, pregnant and married to Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), leads one to presume they can peg just where at least some of Once Upon a Time… is headed. Robbie’s muted screen time is more symbolic than noteworthy to the overall story. And since Tarantino has found success in rewriting history previously (e.g. Inglourious Basterds), his use of Tate may prove surprising.
This feels like the Hollywood version of a refrigerator magnet word game. Tarantino’s influences are endless, and his love of classic cinema is without reproach. However, what he does with it here is baffling, because Once Upon a Time… wanders aimlessly with no real focus for nearly two-and-a-half hours. At times, the film almost feels made for an audience of one, which is aggravating because Tarantino has a bounty of talent at his disposal.
Even not being a fan of 2015’s The Hateful Eight, I have personally never experienced boredom watching a Tarantino film. And yet, despite a tremendous DiCaprio/Pitt partnership and some goofy, wacky moments which bring the movie to life, long stretches drag interminably. The Tarantino jukebox is fully stocked with great music, there is authenticity to the film’s look and feel, but the movie never really comes together.
The acting is great but we don’t care what’s happening. The music is exhilarating, but feels like a gimmick to fill time. The actors standing in for celebrities is fun for awhile, but most of them are fleeting and don’t connect to the arc of Dalton and Booth, or even Sharon Tate.
If this is a swan song of sorts for Tarantino, then maybe I will grow to better appreciate the elegiac qualities that become more pronounced along the way. However, this doesn’t really feel like a goodbye. Rather, it feels like a sharp storyteller who has either a) run out of things to say; or b) has seen his particular brand of writing and storytelling no longer land with the same effectiveness.
No matter the reasons, the ample, fertile playground of 1969 Hollywood should have been a slam-dunk for Quentin Tarantino. Instead, he clangs the rim and appears overwhelmed by his own ambition for the first time in his storied career.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Julia Butters, Margaret Qualley, Lorenza Izzo, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Madisen Beaty, Mikey Madison, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Damon Herriman, Spencer Garrett, Michael Madsen, Clifton Collins Jr., Scott McNairy, Lena Dunham, Rafał Zawierucha, Rumer Willis.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing