Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is a flawed tale that’s too short and too long
Written and directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, and Kurt Russell
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – “L.A. is my lady.” – Frank Sinatra, “L.A. is My Lady”(1984)
The Chairman of the Board may have claimed the City of Angels as his girl, but she’s been in a committed relationship with Quentin Tarantino for decades. This modern-day cinema legend famously set his first three pictures - “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Jackie Brown” (1997) - in Los Angeles, and Tarantino knows this urban terrain extremely well, because he’s lived in L.A. nearly his entire life.
One’s hometown can certainly leave an impression, and although Quentin was born in Tennessee, he moved to Southern California around the age of 3, as noted in the book “Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything Left to Know about the Original Reservoir Dog” by Dale Sherman. Hence, the rest is history.
Well, Tarantino’s new film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is partially a history lesson. It’s set in 1969 La La Land, but the title sounds like a restless children’s story. A fable, perhaps, and in the said year, Quentin turned 6 years old.
Perhaps an appropriate opening is “Once upon a time in 1969, racial tensions were explosive, the Vietnam War divided the country, but in July, Man landed on the Moon, and in August, a seminal rock festival invaded Upstate New York. Say what you want about 1969, but the time was far from mundane.”
In Tarantino’s picture, life has become mundane for actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick was a bankable television star in the traditional-western “Bounty Law” on NBC during the early 60s, but these days, he occasionally plays antagonists as a TV guest star. Unfortunately, his villainous characters always lose the big fights and aren’t kept around the win the wars. Rick’s career is slipping before his eyes, and Cliff triggered two controversial incidents that dissuade studios from hiring him. So, Cliff now plays the eternal role of Rick’s driver, but hey, he is not acting when proclaiming his friendship with Rick by sharing pizza and regularly offering encouraging words. They are best buds, through and through.
They both need their mutual support, as the movie biz – with a smile - slowly pushes Rick off a cliff and into relative obscurity. While Rick fears his future, Cliff really has nowhere else to go, and this laidback Marlboro Man – who wears moccasins in place of boots - truly embraces today’s blessings. He drives Rick’s yellow Coupe de Ville and hopes to find some stunt work, despite his questionable past.
This is a buddy movie, and one that isn’t afraid to take its time, as Tarantino fills the screen with intricate nuances from the period, as only he can. Fans will guzzle and slurp Tarantino’s signature small touches, including his famous brand of cigarettes, but this film feels more personal than his others.
Sure, “Pulp Fiction” had Butch sitting 12 inches from a television and watching a bizarre, dated cartoon, and “Reservoir Dogs” offered K-Billy’s Super Sounds of 70s, but here, Tarantino seems to insert even more moments from his childhood. For instance, a random Wheaties box sits on a kitchen counter in plain sight, a crane shot lovingly captures the Van Nuys Drive-In, and several beats from the period like “Hush” and “Mrs. Robinson” along with random radio commercials pop out of nowhere and settle as a misty foundation that gently soaks into our eardrums.
Tarantino clearly and successfully transports us into this time and place, but narratively, the movie lumbers with serious problems. On top of Rick’s and Cliff’s journeys, the film introduces Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Her career is on the rise, and despite living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, the only time that their paths have crossed is that invisible inflection point when Sharon’s star brightly sparkles upward and Rick’s….well, you know.
Sharon’s screen time remains separate. Separate, but not equal, as we don’t learn a lot about her, other than she enjoys her California lifestyle via a few car rides, either with Roman Polanski, a hitchhiker, or on her own as she stops at a local movie theatre to watch herself perform in “The Wrecking Crew” (1968).
Even though Sharon’s arc plays a fundamental part in Tarantino’s overall vision, she’s caught in movie-purgatory. The camera burns enough calories that require more insight into Sharon, but it never comes. Robbie either needs more to do, or her scenes should be dramatically cut. Just give the audience a few glances of Sharon instead, and she become an on-screen mystery, and a deeply intriguing one.
We don’t get either, and meanwhile Rick and Cliff meet some colorful, rich supporting characters, including a studious 8-year-old actress who appears to channel Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) from “True Grit” (2010), an insightful producer (Al Pacino) and a free-spirited teen (Margaret Qualley). They leave such noteworthy impacts that beg for more minutes, but with a 2-hour 41-minute runtime already, there isn’t exactly room. Even though “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” feels long, one could fruitfully argue that Tarantino needs four hours to ultimately fulfill his vision. Just look to the last act, as it suddenly and clumsily introduces Kurt Russell as a narrator who explains a rushed-montage of events, which is highly bizarre, given the easy-going, carefree pace of the first two hours.
Like Robbie’s screen time, this film feels caught in a terrible case of limbo that would wildly deliver either with a stripped-down, 90-minute Rick and Cliff-comedy or Tarantino’s possible narrative that needed 240 minutes instead of 161.
Yes, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a gorgeously-shot picture, DiCaprio and Pitt work their tails off to – indeed - become these two men who battle Father Time and their immediate environment to reclaim their places in the world, and Tarantino includes – in excess - his familiar indulgences, for better or worse. With all this effort poured into this restless, SoCal “children’s” story, it’s inexplicable that the narrative seems so incomplete and this – in turn - lessens the eventual payoff. This might not be Tarantino’s worst film, but given the presented construction, it’s his most flawed. His undying connection with Los Angeles can never be questioned, but a loving relationship isn’t perfect every day.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.