I’ve always seen Quentin Tarantino as the product of love—someone who absorbed pop culture like a cinematic sponge and made a career beautifully crafting love letters to a vast array of influences, influencers and creators. Like a lot of my ilk, Tarantino quickly became a film icon worthy of praise. Each new movie felt like a Tinseltown gift that consistently fed my cinematic soul. His latest effort, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” is the first time I walked away unsatisfied from one of his four-course features.
There’s a difference between carefully crafted love letters and explosive cum blasts being sprayed across the screen. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a beautiful, shapeless mess—a long, meandering slog that never felt awful but weaved in and out of pointlessness.
It’s 1969 in Hollywood. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a former movie and TV star who has been relegated to playing the heavy in every two-bit TV show willing to offer him a guest role. His best friend Cliff (Brad Pitt) is his stunt double, driver and handyman. Rick struggles with lack of relevance, and desperately tries to hold together his withering ego. He is flat-out told the only way back into the movies is to head overseas to star in some Italian Spaghetti Westerns.
Tarantino spends a lot of time establishing the time, place and foundation of Rick’s career. There’s a lot of scenes featuring his appearance in a number of fictional movies and TV shows to lure the audience into the grounded back lots of the real-world film industry. The glitter is applied by an absolutely worthless subplot featuring Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who radiates through one meaningless scene to the next.
The film features a lot of Tarantino flourishes, many feeling a lot more glaring in a society that is starting to find exploitation cinema a lot less amusing. His penchant for female feet feels grossly exaggerated in the movie. I’m not sure if he’s become less subtle or our increased consciousness has made me more aware. It’s weird when large chunks of a movie feel pointless. If he chose to cut almost every scene featuring Margot Robbie, it would have lost nothing within the narrative. She’s only there to help stage a third-act twist which, like “Inglorious Basterds,” is entertaining historical revisionism but feels strangely forced.
There’s a lot in the movie people would complain about if it were a director other than Tarantino. For instance, there’s no real character arc. There’s also a wildly inconsistent narrative, including a narrator who shows up once in the film’s first 20 minutes and returns two hours later to connect the second and third acts. It’s wasted potential of exploring some deeper backstories to a main character.
I wasn’t a huge fan of “Django Unchained” or “The Hateful Eight,” but those films had structure and shape. This movie is a shapeless mass of moments that lack cohesion.
The two best things about the movie are the performances by DiCaprio and Pitt, who are a likable pair. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is given a lot more opportunity to shine with some trademark Tarantino dialogue and melodrama. By the end of the film, I ended up genuinely liking Rick and Cliff; I just wish more of the two-hour and 40-minute run time had been devoted to them.
The second best thing about the film is how lovingly it recreates this bygone era. The wardrobe, production design and cinematography are absolutely stunning. The audience can feel the love for this time and place from everyone involved. I just wish the story set in this gorgeous, sun-soaked paradise felt more coherent. Ultimately, the movie is a gorgeous mess that never feels like all its pieces fit. I’d reluctantly recommend the movie based on performances and polish. Despite its lack of substance, the style is absolutely fabulous.