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“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” Film Review

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” arrived on a wave of hype and intrigue, and some mild controversy. As such, the discourse surrounding the film as reviews begin to roll out is mixed. For some, it is a high point of Quentin Tarantino’s strong career. For others, it is unforgivably vulgar.

After viewing “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” this critic struggled to find a cohesive verdict and feeling toward the film. I didn’t like it. But some parts I really did. And it was lovely. But boring. Moments of it grabbed me in such a solid way that I totally bought in. Other times it dropped the ball. It was the best of Tarantino’s signature moves… except when it wasn’t.

Suffice to say, my relationship with “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is complicated but there is certainly a lot to discuss. Is this critic in the camp of those who think this is Tarantino’s masterwork? Absolutely not. But is there is an interesting conversation in this film about the auteur and his catalog? For sure.

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is the ninth film by writer and director Quentin Tarantino. The film tells the story of a “has-been” television actor and his stunt double as they strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the reign of Hollywood, and the Manson Family, in late ’60s Los Angeles. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, and features a stacked cast including Maya Hawke, Dakota Fanning, Al Pacino and Kurt Russell.

Let’s get the painful stuff out of the way first. The first feeling one gets from “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is that the film feels a bit bland and meandering. We’ve got these beautiful shots of retro LA and some great cinematography, and quirky (even great) scenes, but it all feels so shallow and aimless.

Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” has a vaguely disjointed narrative that has received some praise. However, to this critic, it feels incohesive and sloppy more than it feels like a choice. If it’s supposed to be a dreamlike flow, it feels like a drunken slur. This casual drifting from thread to thread did not read well and ultimately took me out of the viewing experience. This comes strictly down to narrative preference, but I would have almost preferred defined breaks and chapters, a la “Pulp Fiction.”

I won’t get into the discussion of women and Quentin Tarantino in this review. Speaking strictly to “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” another distraction on par with the muddled narrative structure was the abrasiveness of the male gaze.

There is a certain expectation of crudeness that comes with watching a Tarantino film. He’s just as easily known for shock value as he is rapid-fire dialogue. This has perhaps gotten a little tired,for the 2019 audience, but it is expected… until it becomes overdone. A leering shot that sweeps up the leg and takes in the form of a young actress is common but exhausting. Shooting an entire conversation over the out-of-focus vista of an actress’s ass is eye-roll inducing.

And the feet. The gratuitous feet. Spare me, Tarantino, the impulse to put every attractive young woman’s feet in this movie at the front and center. Goddamn. But it happened and here we are: a bitter taste in my mouth and general disappointment in the willful decision to not evolve.

However, all those shots of feet, as much as it grated at me, speak to one of the strongest points of the film.

To pay a compliment to “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” it is heartwarming to be able to so clearly see how deeply personal the film is to its director. The film, for Tarantino, is equal parts a highlight reel of his greatest hits, a parody of himself (feet, I see you) and an homage to his favorite themes and to the history of a medium that he so clearly adores.

In the case of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” Tarantino’s special brand of revisionist history reads less as a typical revenge fantasy and more as a love letter to what could have been and what was so sorely lost.

Beyond being a tribute to Tarantino himself, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” plays a loving ballad for the City of Angels. Goddamn, it is satisfying when a film so properly captures the soul of such a unique and storied place. The shots of the city, the rhythm and soundtrack of the film, and especially a beautiful montage of neon lighting up the night — it all paints a lovely and dreamy picture. Well done.

The dynamic, star-studded cast of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is absolutely a highlight of the film. I’m sure many read this film strongly in favor of DiCaprio and his portrayal of fading star Rick Dalton, but let me be the first to tell you that this is Pitt’s movie.

Once Upon A Time
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Yes, Pitt as stuntman Cliff Booth is the untouchable star of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” He’s the thesis statement of the film. In Booth, we see the true nature of Hollywood. That behind all the glitz and glamour, there is roughness and longing. That for every fat cat in a mansion is the person who supports them, working hard.

Pitt gives a grounded, funny and compelling performance and is easily handed some of the best moments in the film. His character drives the film, literally, from his place behind the wheel of Dalton’s Cadillac car. This critic may be nonplussed by the film as a whole, but this is a career-defining role for Pitt. Of course, DiCaprio provides a wonderful foil for Pitt to work off of, and the two have a very fun, polar opposite dynamic.

Highlight of the film goes to Sayuri, the red pit bull, in her Cannes Palm Dog award-winning performance as Booth’s canine companion, Brandy. She’s a good girl and literal chewer of scenery.

Somewhere in between the moments I loved and the moments I hated in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” are the moments that sat slightly off-kilter. That left a feeling of uneasiness, while not necessarily falling flat within the story. Let’s start with Charles Manson.

No doubt, we’re experiencing a cultural wave of obsession and the renaissance of true crime and the exploitation of the tales of history’s most famous serial killers. Manson sits high in the U.S. pantheon of ruthless killers. When “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” was first conceived, I like to think that the industry collectively held their breath as they pondered what the notoriously violent Tarantino would do with such a grisly and famous murder.

Thankfully, the film does little to glamorize or even comment on Manson himself. The Manson Family is not a focal point so much as an interlude and the shocking twist of the final scene (no spoilers here) is another entry in Tarantino’s catalog of revenge fantasies. Except that this time, his tendency to rewrite history seems to be written both in Tarantino’s personal sorrow and in a really fantastic character moment for Booth.  

Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Now let’s talk about Sharon Tate, played by the lovely Robbie. Recall that I called Pitt’s Cliff Booth the walking thesis statement of the film. I do think the same can be said for Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate. If Booth represents the grim reality of Hollywood, Sharon Tate is the dream.

Smiling, sun-kissed and sweet, she breezes through the film as a vision of glamour, unattainable to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. If only he could just get beyond that Hollywood Hills gate to the promise and connections that await behind. However, Tate is more than just the distant ideal that teases through the film: She, herself, is a testament to the fantasy of stardom.

One of the most delightful moments in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is when Sharon Tate pauses a casual stroll through Los Angeles to revel in the sight of her name on a marquee and take in her latest film. There is such an innocence to that moment, where she poses next to the poster so that she may be recognized, and smiles broadly when the audience responds to her performance. She represents the dream of making it, as well as the starry-eyed hopefulness that is seemingly shared by every resident of the City of Angels.

The use of original film footage, instead of a recreation, is a damn fine move, I must add. Well done.

My verdict on “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”? It’s flawed. It falls flat in places. It is certainly not Tarantino’s masterpiece. But it is thought-provoking and almost more interesting as a study of the director himself, without falling so easily into the fare that he is best known for. I offer a soft recommendation.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is now in theaters!

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