Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

I miss Sally Menke. I will not pretend to understand exactly what she brought to Quentin Tarantino's filmography - I have only fuzzy ideas of what an editor does and how he/she does it. I could not describe to you the rhythm of a scene or a film, except to say that I can feel when it is off. And Tarantino, when he was working with Menke, was never off.

His films since her passing have had a shaggy, shapeless quality to them - overlong and underbaked, lacking whatever magic Menke brought to the movie. Don't get me wrong; there are still masterful sequences. I still vividly remember the dinner with Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, still recall the queasy emotions during Samuel L. Jackson's monologue right before the cut to black halfway through Hateful Eight. But there is still a spark missing, and it's missing in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, too.

Naturally, there's much to admire here, especially in the performances and in the dutiful, beguiling recreation of late-60s Hollywood. Long stretches feel plucked straight from Tarantino's youthful memory. The issue, for me, is that these images - which work, basically, on a moment-to-moment basis - don't quite cohere into a whole that is, well, coherent.

"Shapeless" was the word that came to mind while I was watching the film, and seeing that word in a number of reviews after getting home only confirmed that I wasn't seeing things. "Clumsy" was another word, relating particularly to the various memories, flashbacks, and imaginings that are spliced - very nearly randomly - into the main action. At one point there's a flashback within a flashback; neither is particularly necessary, but one affords an opportunity to see Brad Pitt's Cliff fight Mike Moh's Bruce Lee, and the surface pleasures of that entire sequence are what I mean when I say that in the moment, I enjoyed it, but every attempt to sit back and reflect on how the parts made up a whole led to a lot of confusion about what, exactly, Tarantino was even trying to do.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is at its best in two places. First, and hardly surprising, is when he falls back on that old Tarantino stalwart: tension. A sequence where Cliff visits the Manson compound is absolutely delicious, while the entire last half hour or so had one guy in the back of my theater say "Oh shit" more than a dozen times.

The second, though, is surprising: This is Tarantino's most human film in years, and Leonardo DiCaprio gives an incredible performance as a down-on-his-luck actor navigating what it means to be at the tail-end of his career. Every scene on the set of his cameo in a new TV show is gold, from his interactions with a young actor (she hates the term "actress"!) to his flubbing of a line, which leads to a breakdown that's shockingly relatable and vulnerable for a Tarantino protagonist. It's in these moments that I'm reminded of what has, in recent years, become a stealth favorite of mine from Tarantino's oeuvre, Jackie Brown.

It's these smaller moments that will stick with me. There's not much to say about the violence of the conclusion - yes, Tarantino does his own "spin" on the Tate murders - except that it's vintage Tarantino, orchestrated brilliantly and, at times, sickeningly. At least on first viewing, though, the ending felt almost disconnected from everything preceding it. Do the attacks happen because they are a necessary part of the story Tarantino is telling, or do they happen because it's 1969 and, well, why not?

I think there is something deeper going on here - Tarantino is trying to say something about the glamour of old Hollywood, or, I should say, the Hollywood of his youth. And certainly, the Tate murders sparked something, a kind of sea change in Hollywood filmmaking. But how do we square that with Tarantino's revisions? Hard to say.

At the end of the day, Once Upon a Time... is a story of small moments that never quite fall into place. I'll say it again: I miss Sally Menke. Whatever she brought to Tarantino's films, it doesn't look like it's coming back without her.