Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Hollywood 1969, and a faded television actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) strive to achieve fame and success in the final year of Hollywood’s golden age. Meanwhile, moving in next door to Rick is one of hottest directors, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his new wife Shannon Tate (Robbie), one of the current rising Hollywood stars.
These days describing a Quentin Tarantino film as self-indulgent is no longer an actual criticism, but merely a simple statement of fact. So, it is therefore no surprise to anyone that his latest is yet another exercise in extreme self-indulgence. There is of course not anything wrong with films being self-indulgent if it is inclusive and accessible, as one of my main criticisms of Tarantino is that his films tend to be the exact opposite of that and (among a fair few other issues) they tend to make the viewer feel like they are an unwelcomed gate crasher at Quentin’s very private party of self-indulgence; his films feel like they are made by him, for him, and that is it.
Anyone who knows me will be very much aware of the fact I just cannot get on with Quentin Tarantino’s films – I do quite simply consider him to be one of the most overrated filmmakers of all time who has made some of the most overrated films of all time. There are many good things about his films, and there is no denying his obvious passion and knowledge for cinema and also talent for writing good dialogue, but for all these individual good moments that exist in all his films as writer and director (I still consider True Romance and From Dusk Till Dawn to be the best things he has done) there is so much to dislike, in particular his tendency to treat the audience like idiots in the way clearly thinks that they do not know as much as he does about the history of cinema, so he often labours points way too much as we the audience are obviously not as knowledgeable as Quentin Tarantino the high and mighty all knowing God of film knowledge!
All of us humble idiots must simply accept that if a film is directed by the great saint Quentin that it must be a masterpiece, and so we must embrace it so and not even dare commit heresy and question it!
Well, I will happily question it, and though Once Upon a Time is certainly an improvement on Deathproof, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, it is for me a decent and overall perfectly watchable film with some great individual moments and performances (like of all of Tarantino’s films), but yet because of its alienating self-indulgence and its tendency to labour its points to extremely patronising levels, it is for me a film that will be completely forgotten the very moment I submit this review.
There is no denying that Once Upon a Time is a film with incredible painstaking period detail in every single shot, and it does truly capture the feeling of the period it is set in. However, when a film costs $90 million to make should saying this be a compliment or just a minimum expectation? I personally think the latter, but this is yet another element of the film that I would argue labours its themes way too much. Surely there can only be so many shots of various buildings within Hollywood or people driving around aimlessly before the point that these shots are making becomes laboured and boring?
Once Upon a Time is undoubtedly a very passionate examination of a key time in Hollywood where its post-war ‘golden age’ ended and it entered a more introspective and paranoid period in the 1970s. The film being set around the brutal true events of the murder of Sharon Tate of course emphasise this, and the fact that we the audience know this is going to happen (while the characters are of course completely oblivious) does add undoubted poignancy to the narrative. However, the problem is that unless you watch this film with your eyes closed and your ears covered from start to finish of the film’s (way too overlong) 161 minute running time, then you will have this idea and key theme rammed down your throat so much that you may well find yourself choking – once again further proof that the hubristic Tarantino thinks no one knows as much about cinema as he does.
When themes are patronisingly signposted as much as they are in Once Upon a Time, they really do lose their initial emotional power and just become annoying. This film’s portrayal of the tragic character of Sharon Tate (not really a spoiler) really is a case in point; no criticism should be aimed at Margot Robbie as she is just acting as she is directed, and she perfectly captures the naivety and innocence of her character. However, we can only have so many scenes of her wandering around Hollywood smiling to herself to understand that she is obviously a character that represents great tragedy in several levels, but we get so many that she actually for me became incredibly irritating. The scene that truly takes the biscuit is when she goes to the cinema to see The Wrecking Crew (of which she stars) and then sneaks into the cinema and revels in seeing the audience laugh at her performance (while putting her bare feet on the seat in front! – surely if Quentin were a true film fan he would not have that in one of his films!) – this should be a powerful scene, but because of the fact the film tends to labour all of its key themes this just feels like self-indulgence on all levels that is beyond the pale! It should also be pointed out that even air born bacteria get that from the film’s title there is a fairy-tale element to the narrative, but once again over-explanation leads to alienation!
Once Upon A Time is at its best when it is just having fun, and that is where Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt come in (as well as cameos from some famous faces): they share great chemistry and are obviously having a great time, and deliver the kind of charismatic and intriguing performances we would expect from them. We care about their characters and their relationship (Cliff is described to Rick is more than a brother but less than a wife), and some of the footage of DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton (whether it be in front of or behind the camera-within-the-camera) is equally hilarious and very moving. The film is at its best when it focusses on these two fictional characters and it is quite playful (but equally respectful) to the Hollywood machine and the trajectory of Rick Dalton as he goes from starring in a big TV series, to a failed attempt at movie career, to being a rent-a-bad guy to having to travel to Italy to star in spaghetti Westerns. Meanwhile Brad Pitt is very watchable and is a pleasure to watch in the scenes involving his character’s individual journey. If it were not for the undeniable screen charisma of DiCaprio and Pitt, then Once Upon a Time would probably be an arduous slog of a film. it is a film that is often a pleasure to watch when being playful and focussing on its two main characters, but the rest of the ‘substance’ is just over emphasised so much it becomes quite tiresome very quickly.
The film’s final third is a complete change of gear; firstly we get a slightly over expositional voiceover from Kurt Russell (though in some ways this is a good thing as without it the film may have ended up being four hours long!) that does at times feel that it explains what is happening too much (because, as I have already established; we the stupid uneducated audience do not know as much about cinema as saint Quentin!), but then we get the violent climax we are all expecting (well, kind of). I will of course refrain from spoilers, but it is a very gripping, harrowing and textbook Tarantino (in both a good and bad way) sequence that will shock some, while others (like me) will just roll their eyes and remember we are watching a Tarantino film.
Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time has many good qualities, and I have no doubt that it will be over analysed and regarded as some kind of masterpiece, but (despite Tarantino’s obvious low opinion of the audience), it does not tell us anything we don’t know already. The story of its two main characters is at times equally moving and hilarious, but the true story element is only moving because it is a true (and an undeniably very tragic) story. Despite Tarantino’s tendency to patronise the audience to extreme levels, Once Upon a Time is just about watchable, but highly forgettable.
Though better than his previous few offerings, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is still textbook Tarantino: Some great performances and some great individual cinematic moments, but an overstuffed, self-indulgent, often alienating and ultimately highly forgettable incoherent mess of a film.