The 9th film from Quentin Tarantino is a ballad to a long lost era in Hollywood. The film is nearly three hours long and true to the director’s style, there is little by way of plot and a lot by way of character development. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt shine in their respective roles while many of the remaining actors get lost in a bloated narrative told in the iconic filmmaker’s irreverent style.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a love story of sorts. Not the kind of love story typically told involving two central characters who journey the often perilous avenues of the heart.
No, Once Upon a Time is a love story to Hollywood (the Hollywood in the 50s and 60s). The film is set in 1969 and take places in two chapters over four days in February and October of that year. The central characters are washed up screen star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his best buddy and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt).
The Saga of a Washed Up Star
The plot, if there is one as often Tarantino prides himself on films not obligated to the conventions of standard plot-based storytelling, centers around Dalton and his ultimate realization that he’s not the film star he once believed he would be. Its about unrealized dreams and the moment in a man’s life when he finds himself alone, his fame quickly fading and what the material items he holds feeling quite shallow.
DiCaprio’s performance as Dalton is stellar with a great range of emotional depth played out equally on his face as often as it is in his dialogue. In fact, if the film was better focused on DiCaprio alone, Once Upon a Time would likely be a better film — probably the best of the year so far.
But DiCaprio’s fall from the graces of Hollywood stardom is surrounded by a changing world around him during the summer of ’69. The infamous Summer of Love that would be the pinnacle of the hippie movement and marked with the bloody murders committed by the Manson Family.
The Mystery of Sharon Tate
This is where Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) come into the story. Polanski is Dalton’s neighbor, albeit living in a much bigger house behind a big gate a little higher in the Hollywood hills. Polanski and Tate represent the youthful movement of the industry’s hottest new filmmakers and actors. While Dalton embodies the sad shadow of yesterday.
Polanski is more in name that actually in character in the film … Zawierucha’s screen time is limited and he has virtually no lines. This makes sense in many ways as the story of Tate is much more compelling given the context the film. Unfortunately, Tarantino doesn’t give Robbie much to do either and her incarnation of Tate is more a symbol of something sweet and innocent that is lost in the harsh events that follow.
Perhaps if a lesser known actress had been cast as Tate this greatly abridged version of the actress could be forgiven. But Robbie ( The Wolf of Wall Street) has established herself as a great actor in her own right and deserved to given the opportunity to do more with the part.
It has already been hinted that there are plenty of outtakes and deleted scenes that hit the cutting floor with Once Upon a Time so its possible the substance of Sharon Tate just didn’t make the final film. Either way, it’s a shame and is some ways a disservice to both Robbie and the real life woman she portrays.
The same shortcomings beset Pitt’s Cliff Booth as well, although to a lesser degree. Pitt gets plenty of screen time and some of the film’s best dialogue. But Tarantino refuses to develop his character in any meaningful way preferring instead to build Booth on mystique and third party rumors and innuendo.
There’s a potential backstory on Booth before he came to be a stuntman in Hollywood involving both his time as a “war hero” and as a man who may have murdered his wife. Neither element is unwrapped nearly as far as it could be leaving audiences less connected to Booth that we should be.
Despite all of this like DiCaprio, Pitt delivers one of his best performances. For the first time in more than decade, Pitt is allowed to look his age (mid-50s) with the burden of superficial makeup or hair giving him an artificially youthful appearance. Instead, Pitt’s Booth looks just as worn out and run down as Dalton’s career and credit to both actor and director for the creative decision.
A Two Man Show
Other big name actors are merely just visitors in the film, most with roles so small you’ll hardly notice them. Damien Lewis ( Homeland) is a dead ringer for Steve McQueen and has a few great lines of dialogue in a single scene. Timothy Olyphant ( Deadwood) is solid as fellow actor James Stacy, who shares an important scene filming a pilot episode of a new TV show with Dalton. Again, his time in the movie is so brief most audiences will forget he’s in it at all.
Al Pacino has a more significant role as Marvin Schwarzs, although the screen legend doesn’t seem to be putting much effort into the role. Schwarzs is basically just Pacino being Pacino. And Schwarzs is really just a cheap plot device used early in the movie to confirm Dalton’s fears that his career is on the decline. For any fans who were excited in the promise of Pacino finally appearing in a Tarantino film are likely to suffer a major letdown.
To no surprise, Once Upon a Time is beautifully shot with the skilled eye of a master filmmaker. Long time Tarantino collaborator, Robert Richardson, does Oscar worthy work here. He was the man behind some previous Tarantino films including Inglorious Bastards (2009) and Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003). It’s easy to get lost in Tarantino’s nostalgic fairy tale with Richardson behind the camera.
It some ways its silly to suggest a film is important to a filmmaker since every project should be important to a director. But Once Upon a Time is clearly Tarantino’s most personal film to date … for better and for worse. His passion produces several scenes that glimmer with real Hollywood magic.
His ability to get the most of his actors like so few director can is on display again, most notably through the performances of Pitt and DiCaprio. However, the film muddles along too much with extended scenes of pure Tinsel Town nostalgia and the prolonged agony of a film star who never really was. And although the studio has marketed the film with some use of the Manson Murders at Polanski’s residence as a key point of tension, those horrid events play virtually no part in the great film.
In the end, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is going to be embraced by Tarantino’s loyal legions as a “classic” while most audiences will likely only give the film a passing glance. Some might even argue that the story Tarantino has to tell here is one solely for his own personal gratification.
Nevertheless, Once Upon a Time is likely to be one of the most talked and written about films of the summer of 2019.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is in theaters now.
Originally published at https://blueharvestfilms.com on August 5, 2019.