Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ puts front-and-center all of the director’s idealism and fetishes. It’s called by many as his “love letter to LA and the golden age of Hollywood,” and there is definitely a lot of love for the characters -- both real and fictional -- that inhabit the world of his film. It’s a tapestry of loosely connected narratives about Hollywood that centers on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a fading television star coming to terms with his declining career and his friendship with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, his stuntman.
The fictional Dalton navigates Hollywood’s ins and outs and comes across Quentin Tarantino’s creative representations of actual people like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), and Charles Manson’s family, which includes everyone from Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, and Margaret Qualley amongst others. In typical Tarantino movies, each scene serves as a mouthpiece in rich, vibrant dialogue (sometimes even a sprawling monologue) for Tarantino’s ideas and musings, about film and life.
I have to admit that I’m not a fan of Quentin Tarantino. I liked ‘Pulp Fiction’ when I first saw it over two decades ago. But as I got more and more exposed to more films and I got older, I’ve become less and less affectionate to his career-making film. Many of his movies rubbed me the wrong way and of all his work, it is ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and his screenplay for ‘True Romance’ that I still look at with affection. I say this to properly contextualise my thoughts in the film.
There’s quite a lot that I like in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,’ most notably the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt. Robbie has rather little screen time, but her presence is felt throughout the film. Her being and her character is essential to the climax of the film and so while she is barely present in the whole movie, she lingers throughout and that’s a testament to her charisma.
Tarantino, when he focuses the story on Rick Dalton’s narrative of coming to terms with being a has-been, is the strongest in portions of the film. Unafraid to get really, really close to DiCaprio, it truly highlights DiCaprio’s skill as an actor to really convey the inner struggles while trying to maintain a sense of composure in front of other people and, to top it off, to perform and act as Rick Dalton in the many scenes he has where he’s performing.
It’s a magnificent display of acting prowess for DiCaprio, to play Rick Dalton playing someone else. It’s quite an amazing feat.
What’s also incredible is how Tarantino casts a wide net in showing off all of Hollywood’s golden era, from smallest details like when Sharon Tate goes to the cinema to watch herself and people’s reaction to her scenes in ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (featuring the actual Sharon Tate instead of Margot Robbie digitally included like they do with Leonardo DiCaprio in scenes of actual movies and TV shows of that time like ‘FBI’), or the larger-than-life moments like the filming of the scenes of Rick Dalton’s show ‘Bounty Law.’
What I find challenging for this two hour and forty-one minute film is that it feels aimless and, oftentimes, lost in the nostalgia and the creative liberties of Tarantino’s recreation of this era. A lot of the scenes drag just for the sake of soaking up in this world. It goes through many flashbacks that play out a little too long that it feels indulgent for Tarantino, because it serves more the thrill of the scene but it doesn’t serve the story or the narrative as much.
‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ is definitely a love letter to Hollywood, but it lacks restraint as all artistic endeavours should somehow manage. By the time it reaches its over-the-top climax, I feel exhausted from all these scenes that revels in mood and atmosphere rather than a narrative I can really chew on. On a personal note, I could have done away with one-third of the immersion and come out content but instead I feel perplexed. Like, I’m still not sure what it wanted to say or how I feel about the material. I would have loved to have really empathized with Rick Dalton’s struggle, but there’s so much more that I was given that I don’t know what to do with.
There are people who enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s work and, in my opinion, this is the most accessible and most enjoyable of his work since ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ and that’s coming from someone who is not a fan. Like any Tarantino film, there are things that will offend and there are things that will make you laugh, and the dialogue is sharp and verbose. It’s Tarantino at the top of his game.