Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) 

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 

There’s been a great deal said and written about this film since it’s Australian release in August and I thought it was high time to join in. I should say from the outset I’m not a huge fan of Tarantino’s more recent work, I find it mostly too overblown and disconnected. And this saddens me, I feel Tarantino is one of those directors I really want to like more than I do. There are always characters, set pieces and key scenes that I really love but they are always lost in the morass of pop-culture or cinephile references that surround his work and I end up feeling a distinct emptiness – similar to feeling hungry soon after eating junk food. Not that Tarantino is junk food – I have too much respect for him and his craft to say that! Jackie Brown (1997) has been my favourite Tarantino film since I first saw it over 20 years ago and despite the ultraviolence, I really like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). As a child of the 60s and a similar age to Tarantino, I hoped Once Upon a Time would push all the right nostalgia buttons and really work for me. 

Sadly, I was disappointed yet again. 

There are of course, many good things about this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as the tragi-comic Rick Dalton, desperately trying to hang on to his flagging career in an industry that feeds on youth, always looking for the ‘next big thing’. His anxiety is almost palpable at times and juxtaposes well with his stunt double Cliff Booth, played with skill by Brad Pitt. The older Pitt gets, the more I like him as a screen presence, and here he shows considerably more range than he was permitted in Ad Astra (2019). Across the board, the casting is uniformly excellent and there are some quite genius casting decisions throughout, particularly in smaller roles from the likes of Al Paciono, Michael Marsden, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern and Damian Herriman (from Judy & Punch). 

Sadly, women are for the most part, poorly served here. As can be expected of the period, women perform very stereotypical functions and are mostly depicted as decorative good girls (Sharon Tate and her cohort) or decorative bad girls (Pussycat and the Manson girls). The only ones who are permitted to push beyond this are Margot Robbie’s luminous and endearing Sharon, (she does so much to elevate her role), Margaret Qualley as Pussycat and Julia Butters as the child actor who brings Rick Dalton to tears. There is also some very pointed racism, directed at native Americans and Mexicans that I know can be fobbed off as true to the period but still made me cringe and the less said about the Bruce Lee scene the better!

As to be expected, Tarantino’s attention to period detail across all media – television, advertising, film, fashion and music – is simply staggering, adding a rich depth and texture to the film style that for me, offered moments of incredible nostalgia – both good and bad. Sadly, that also fuels what I think is the film’s biggest problem – its uneven and meandering tone. 

In almost three hours running time, I got bored with so many establishing shots of people driving and walking. Above all, it is difficult to find a narrative through-line and when tension is built, it is removed just as quickly until the very final scenes. This left me with feelings of empty dissatisfaction because, like Rick Dalton’s acting, I’m certain there is something great lurking in there, waiting to get out. 

Okay – but not as great as I wanted it to be.

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