In the world of cinema, my world at least, few things come with more anticipation and excitement than a new Quentin Tarantino release. From Pulp Fiction to Jackie Brown to the Kill Bills and more, I can honestly say that more than half of the man’s filmography probably ranks inside my top twenty five movies of all time. Having only had the chance to review The Hateful Eight in the history of this blog, I was very much looking forward to getting back in touch with Tarantino’s work and seeing how his latest creation would rank amongst his best.
Set in late 1960s Los Angeles, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once famed star of Westerns whose fortunes appear to be on the slopes in the setting sun of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Dalton navigates the tricky world of ‘pilot season’ along with his stunt double and only friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and the narrative follows the two characters as their lives become unwittingly and dangerously intertwined with the existence and actions of the infamous Manson Family. The main reason for this? Rick happens to live next door to Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his starlet wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
In many ways, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood feels like one of Quentin Tarantino’s most sweeping and ambitious projects, but it’s sweeping scale doesn’t always work to its benefit. At the heart of the picture, you have a somewhat tender, uncharacteristically heartfelt for Tarantino, story about an actor who is coming to terms with the fading nature of his career and his genuine friendship with his best friend stunt double, and on the other, you have a bittersweet insight into the gentle, carefree, only just beginning life of Sharon Tate twinned with the foreboding growth and presence of the Manson Family. Both of these stories are engaging and watchable in their own ways, but I have to say that there is something less than elegant in the way that they are sewn together right up until the final third.
It’s no secret that Tarantino indulges in some cathartic revisionist history in the vein of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds here, but unlike that Nazi burning extravaganza, it really feels like if you don’t have previous knowledge of the Tate murders, then you are going to miss a lot of what this film has to offer. In fact, the word ‘Manson’ isn’t even uttered in the entire three hour running time, so Tarantino is either trying to be deliberately evasive or he is being way too presumptuous of his audience. If you don’t carry a knowing expectation of what you assume is going to happen to Sharon Tate into the film with you, then I can imagine that all and any of Margot Robbie’s scenes feel like a bizarre distraction and diversion from Rick and Cliff’s adventures.
And, yeah, about that three hour runtime! I certainly enjoyed Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but I’m not going to sit here and say that there aren’t long, drawn out, indulgent sequences in the film that feel almost deliberately anti-entertainment. Tarantino is no doubt at the stage in his career where whatever he says goes in all departments and stages of production, so I guess I’m leaving the blame with him there. The way I see it, the real genius is in making and keeping an excellent film tight and concise, not in expanding it beyond comfortable viewing length because you don’t want to cut or adjust your vision.
If you want to talk about charisma, then the film has it absolutely bursting at the seams. It isn’t until you get the likes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio together, playing off one another, that you remember just what the term ‘movie star’ really means. As Rick Dalton, DiCaprio oozes effortless personality, also getting a chance to display a natural comic side that has rarely been required in his previous roles. As Cliff Booth, Brad Pitt is just, well, Brad fucking Pitt. The man is 55 and still shirtless and still amazing, and he has enough on screen charisma and magnetism to flip the North and South Poles. Watching the actors together is just a real treat.
Much was made in the run up to the film’s release of Margot Robbie’s role as Sharon Tate, and of how little dialogue she has in comparison to the male characters, but there is much more than words to both the characterisation and the performance. In the fabled history of Hollywood, Sharon Tate has been treated as not much more than a footnote victim of a tragic crime. She was, there is no doubt about that, but Robbie does something great here, she embodies the character living her everyday, unassuming life.
She might not have any powerful monologues, but Margot Robbie shows the audience in extended scenes of simply ‘living’ that Sharon Tate was more than just a name attached to a murderous rampage. Again, I’m not entirely sure that Tarantino does the best (or any, really) kind of job in letting completely ‘virgin’ viewers in on the importance of this character, but for someone like me who is obsessed with true crime, I was very touched by Robbie’s work here.
Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a solid addition to the Quentin Tarantino filmography, but I can’t say that it has enough to contend with the top half of my rankings. The film almost feels like a love letter to an old age of Hollywood, combining fictitious characters and real life figures to weave a revisionist tale around the event that arguably signalled the end of that golden, nostalgic era. More tender than you might be used to for Tarantino, but still possessing most of the director’s trademark shocking touches where it counts. There are some things that really work, others that really don’t, but on balance, I’d have to say that I’m a fan.