Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
A ‘what-if’ take on one of the blackest spots in Hollywood history
Once upon a time.. in a place far away from Hollywood, there was a passionate fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. To him, DiCaprio seems to possess a magic wand that effortlessly transforms each movie he starred into memorable pieces of arts, worthy of becoming bedroom posters. With the likes of Inception (2010), The Revenant (2015), Shutter Island (2010) and Gangs of New York (2002), there’s not much room for things to go wrong as long as DiCaprio’s name is in the cast list. Or so he thought.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film. Not that I was counting, just look it up in the theatrical release poster, which, should sit right above this review. See that? It was directed and written by Tarantino himself, as he summoned a string of Hollywood A-Listers including DiCaprio in the leading role as Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt as his stunt double, Cliff Booth. I shall make a brief pause here, because unlike DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters which are purely fictional, the characters coming up next are actual persons, or closely derived from one. Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch and Margaret Qualley played Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring and Pussycat (a member of the notorious Manson Family) respectively. It is as Hollywood as Hollywood gets.
I must first confess that I had zero idea of what I was about to step into, apart from the film being marketed as a comedy-drama, and having a chance to see DiCaprio and Pitt on the silver screen once again. With Tarantino’s name embellishing the attractively retro-styled poster, I thought that it must be good. But good is a subjective term, isn’t it?
Even as the film kicked-off with Rick in the midst of a supposedly declining acting career, with his carefree buddy-slash-stunt double Cliff doing absolutely nothing that can console him, the story feels like it wanted to be funny, yet wasn’t really there. It had all the ingredients to be a smackingly-funny dose of comedy, with an overly paranoid, vulgarity-filled, partially-intelligent Rick Dalton embodied by DiCaprio going in at gear six. Then, on the other side, you have Cliff Booth, a man of few words with an annoying level of loyalty towards Rick. And yes, he could kill you accidentally, because he’s a war veteran who’s got so used to killing someone else. These two fellows alone are capable enough to send you laughing right until the moment you walk out from the cinema hall.
Except, it didn’t. Yes, I found Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to be funny, but, to a minuscule extent. Trying to stand in the most neutral of positions to describe the comedic facet of the film, all I can report is that if you’re able to ‘catch’ the jokes thrown around in it, then you will feel fulfilled way more than the amount of laughs that you will endeavor, because, well, you get the jokes. But, if you do not, then, the film has only two words for you. Too bad.
Although not as harsh, a similar vibe can be felt for all the classic songs and movies referenced periodically along the way. Still, whether you actually ‘know’ a song in the film or otherwise, it still can be candy to your ears. It’s just that if the song happens to be plucked from your childhood, it doubles down on the impact towards you.
Similar things can be said with the frequent cuts into the “film within film” scenes in the movie, where I constantly found the way they molded the fictional Rick Dalton into the otherwise actual classic films to be rather funny, especially when he’s performing those overboard lines or acts that is a little cringey by today’s standards. It is fair to mention that Tarantino retro-rized those scenes into grainy-perfection.
Elsewhere, when the scenes are not cut into those “retro film footages”, everything on-screen stands out faithfully as era-accurate pieces, be it the outfits or cars. If those don’t make you hark back to the 60’s, Tarantino still has a slew of fine touches to make sure you will. He wants you to know that it’s an era where news reports blare out endlessly from your car speakers, and in-flight smoking is still a thing. Fortunately, nothing slips away into the final cut which may suggest that it comes from the era of Justin Bieber.
Now, if you’re still unaware, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood plays back just as long as its title might suggest; a lengthy two hours and 41 minutes. Usually, I appreciate standalone films which run more than two hours, because the extra minutes translates to unseen effort or production values, if not both. But for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s quite different, frankly.
If the extended dialogue scenes don’t weigh down on your eyelids, then, the wandering story-line will most likely do. I can hear some voices already. “Hey, it’s Quentin Tarantino, so, lengthy dialogues are his signature approach, as well as yada, yada..”. I would gladly disagree on this. If a remarkable director doesn’t impress the newcomers in his 9th, 19th or even the 90th film, then I believe the said film doesn’t deserve any of the false worships.
More often than not, I found the moments within the film to be in the middle of nowhere. Yes, if somewhere in your past, you were rocked by the shocking news of Sharon Tate, then you might be able to see the converging line of the erratic multi-plots way earlier than I did. But for the rest of us, we will probably float around the first and second act, only to find our anchoring point just before the final resolve. Believe me, that is not exciting.
If I have to be concise, it feels like just about 3-pages plucked from Rick Dalton’s 3000-pages long journal. How did Rick meet his buddy, Cliff? What happens to both of them after the defining finale? Your guess is as good as anyone who has watched the movie. Stretch that 3-pages into a 141 minutes-film, and the pace becomes torturously slow, and some scenes get rather repetitive. You can try to count the occasions where Rick’s ’66 Cadillac Coupe de Ville leaves and re-enters his house compound. Or the instances of cigarette butts being tossed onto the floor.
And by the way, regarding the controversial scene in the movie where Bruce Lee is portrayed as an arrogant dude without substance… right. Having experienced it first hand, I think that it’s a rather distasteful mocking of a well-loved legend, and the scene is unnecessary anyway. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood couldn’t get any better or worse without that scene, but Tarantino’s statement of defense on that matter certainly does more damage. I can’t confirm if Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy, but I can smell that a certain director has gotten arrogant over time.
Addict Verdict, AV:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, though boasting obscene amounts of artistic and nostalgic values, is a highly targeted film which is geared towards a very narrow group of audience. If you’re born pre-70’s, or born later but grew up with healthy (read: crazy) amounts of exposure to everything Hollywood, then, the film might be wildly entertaining and engulfs you with a sense of belonging. If you’re somewhere out of that category, then, I reckon that you will be bogged down by the film’s extended screen-time and aimless plots, or find the film to be a snooze-fest, even. — The Film Addict
Originally published at https://www.thefilmaddict.com on August 22, 2019.
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