First things first: if you are a Quentin Tarantino fan then you need to add at least one star to this review. Secondly, before Once Upon a Time in Hollywood screened at Cannes, the press were asked “not to reveal or say anything about the film that would spoil the enjoyment of it for audiences around the world”. So, where does that leave a reviewer?
Well, here are some things we can say that do not spoil anything for anyone. Tarantino has a fantastic cinematic eye, particularly for period detail. What Tarantino doesn’t know about B-movies of the 1960s isn’t worth knowing and he puts this knowledge to good use to set the scene for this trip down memory lane. Every frame is perfect and there are so many references to the TV and cinema of the period that it’s hard to keep up.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Trailer
It’s February 1969 and the setting is Hollywood: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor whose career is running out of steam. He’s been in a long-running TV series, but that’s about to end, and he risks petering out with a slew of bad-guy roles in a bunch of TV shows. His right-hand man is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is also his driver and odd-job man as well as his companion. The two leads are perfectly cast, their blond good looks and physical stature making them virtually interchangeable as Rick and Cliff. And, as they have done for Tarantino in the past, both DiCaprio and Pitt put in excellent performances as the drunken stuttering almost-has-been and the laid-back southerner who – as one character points out – is far too good looking to be a stuntman.
Rick lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski and he sees in his Polish neighbour a chance to revive his flagging career, yet the two never actually meet. Instead we see Sharon going about her business, alone, while Polanski is in London. One of the issues I had with the film was the insubstantiality of Sharon. Other than being beautiful (and watching herself on screen), smiling beatifically and sashaying her way around Hollywood, we learn nothing about her. Maybe Tarantino did this on purpose to retain a sense of her unknowability, but I would have preferred her to have more depth, seeing as she was a real person and seeing as much of this story is leading up to the events around her death.
Another issue is the film’s length, much of the 2 hours and 41 minutes are taken up with glimpses into Rick’s previous films and shows: here he is killing a bunch of Nazis with a flame thrower, here he is as a bounty hunter, and so on. Tarantino spends so much time in Rick’s fictional world that he leaves out time for the much more interesting real world. It’s 1969, the war in Vietnam is raging, hippies are on the streets and the American youth is changing, yet the war is barely mentioned and the only ‘hippies’ the audience meets are the Manson family.
It is here that the film becomes really interesting, and the director’s portrayal of Cliff’s trip to the Spahn ranch, an erstwhile location for many a western where the Manson family were holed up, is a genuinely gripping and terrifying scene. It also show’s Cliff’s humanity and decency, hitherto only touched on in his relationship with his adorable dog, when he insists on seeing the owner (Bruce Dern), a man with whom he had worked. And here’s another problem: rumour has it that Cliff murdered his wife back in the day, and there is a scene that is played for comedy that does not exactly belie this rumour. Yet it is Cliff who is the real hero of this film.
There are also a whole bunch of fine actors who are given little to nothing to do here. Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Michael Madsen, Lena Durham, the late lamented Luke Perry… the list goes on. What’s the point of wasting all that talent on a couple of lines each?
There is much to like about this film, particularly the self-referential moments, and there will be plenty of viewers who will love it more than I did, but Tarantino needs to get back to the editing room and overcome his overindulgence with those beloved film references and his excessive love of depicting excessive violence. There is little here that has not been seen from Quentin Tarantino before (most notably Inglorious Basterds for one storyline choice in particular). Frankly, this time I was hoping for something more while also wishing I had seen at least 30 minutes less.