On their own, I like all—okay, most—of the pieces of Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus of revisionist history/love letter to a golden age of movies, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Individual characters, scenes, and moments stand out, and all his hallmarks are present and accounted for. The soundtrack kills, whip-cracking dialogue abounds, and harsh violence lurks just beyond the surface. Unfortunately, these pieces never cohere in any meaningful way and the whole thing feels empty and meandering, a collection of moments more than a cohesive being.
Once Upon a Time follows fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and best pal, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they navigate the movie busies. Set in 1969 in the heart of Hollywood, this is a nostalgic look at that era. Rick lives next to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), there’s a party with Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) in attendance, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) shows up in possibly the most head-scratching fashion, and it overflows with similar inside-baseball nods from someone with an obsessive, encyclopedic love of such lore.
Tarantino goes heavy on the context, and the knowledge of what ultimately happens to Rick’s neighbors casts a shadow over the bouncy, swinging ‘60s Tinseltown vibe. It’s so swingin’ at one point I swear I thought the film was going to bust out a mod song-and-dance number. But trying to create this looming shadow of doom as a way of building tension doesn’t work.
The film paints a picture of an epoch on the brink of change. Rick finds himself and his career at a crossroads, the entertainment industry is in the midst of a radical upheaval, the free-loving 1960s are coming to a close, both in a literal and metaphorical sense—many people mark the Manson murders as the moment where the optimistic hippie dream died. It’s intriguing and fun and engaging in the moment—Tarantino is nothing if not a master of making compulsively watchable films—but it all amounts to nothing and rings hollow.
Like I said, there are fantastic individual elements. This should go down as one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performances, alternating between the cocksure swagger of a movie star and crushing, crippling insecurity that belies a deep sensitivity. He’s the emotional core of Once Upon a Time, but that’s a problem when he’s not on screen, which he’s not for long stretches. No one else comes close to being as interesting or engaging.
Pitt’s charming and brash affable, but on his own, Cliff’s not particularly compelling—except when he’s with his dog, and if a dog upstages you, that’s probably not great. He’s primarily a tether for Rick, and inconsequential when not filling that role. And there’s a huge second act reveal—which occurs in a flashback within another flashback—designed to permanently, indelibly alter how we view him. Only the film forgets or ignores this game-changing disclosure and it’s of little to no consequence.
The rest of the cast is a who’s who of familiar faces that show up for a moment or two then disappear. Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Damon Herriman, Al Pacino, Michael Madsen, and more all have minor roles, emphasis on minor. A few stand out. Bruce Dern as George Spahn is hilarious and heartbreaking, and Dakota Fanning terrifies as Squeaky Fromme. But so many are just there to be recognized and serve no other purpose than Tarantino yelling, “Hey, look who I know.”
Outside of DiCaprio and Pitt, Robbie has the only substantial role, though calling it substantial is generous. Tate exists to be precocious and bubbly—she dances exponentially more than she actually speaks. Though she serves as a historical anchor point, her role could be almost entirely excised from the film without significantly altering the narrative.
This is indicative of a bloat you don’t find in most Tarantino films. Length isn’t the issue—both The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained clock in longer—but there’s more here that’s superfluous and that doesn’t matter in the bigger picture. The whole thing ties so closely to Tate and Manson it feels inevitable, like we’re just killing time until we get to a preordained end.
And then there’s the final act. Which, on its own, provides a rip-roaring bit of mean-spirited exploitation, the type Tarantino does so well. But before it comes to that, it’s also one of the clunkiest shifts I’ve encountered in a good long while, injecting intrusive voice over, and turns into a near minute-by-minute breakdown that’s the cinematic equivalent of reading a history text book. Tarantino, of course, puts his own revisionist touches on the tale, which is where the fun comes in, though for anyone familiar with his predilections, it’s also entirely predictable.
All of this makes it sound like I hate Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I don’t. I had a decent time watching it and there’s a lot to praise. Tarantino’s craft is, as usual, impeccable. The man stages and shoots the shit out of some shit. The stuff with Rick may be the most emotional material he’s ever written, and if the faux-movies and TV shows that pepper the film were real, I would watch the hell out of them—I hope to one day wake up in an alternate reality where The 14 Fists of McClusky is a real motion picture.
Tarantino has, for good reason, reached a status as a filmmaker where he can do whatever he wants without oversight and no one to tell him no. And that’s served him well, allowing him to indulge his peculiar whims and tastes. Up to this point. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels like the first time where that backfired, where he could have used more outside input or restraints. Instead of tight and sharp, it’s loose and swollen and unfocused, and the whole picture winds up an empty, if moderately entertaining journey that never goes anywhere.