Brian Formo’s review published on Letterboxd:
Note: A rewatch of this film became infinitely more positive below is my original review; click the other to see a shift toward the bright lights of cinematic love.
Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is the writer-director's most shapeless film and sometimes it rests like an immovable blob. But sometimes, even in its stillness, it contains his warmest and most humane work. Of course it all ends with massive bloodletting and an ending that would be shocking if he hadn't already made Inglourious Basterds. You know all along that Tarantino is getting to the night of the heinous Manson murders but the way in which he gets there is fascinating in not only how ramshackle it is but also in how little purpose there is other than worshipping the creation of a film and how it feels to watch that film with an audience that is enjoying it. However, the enjoyment of his latest film is spotty because it is so shapeless—except for those razor's edge moments of desperation that Tarantino excels at. It's become apparent that Tarantino greatly misses Sally Menke who seemingly was able to turn some of QT's streams back into the main river, whereas since her passing, Tarantino's films are a flooded bog of too many ideas and though lots of darlings are killed, none of Quentin's endless asides are.
This celluloid worship gifts us some fantastic moments—such as washed up Western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) listening to a child actor (Julia Butters) describe her work ethic while his has become creaky and in decline—but more often than not it affords Tarantino the ability to scratch an itch that's actually a detriment to the story. For instance, instead of allowing Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to organically reveal her throuple coupling with husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and her ex-fiancé, Jay Sebring (Emilie Hirsch), Tarantino has Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) tell us at a party. Tarantino robs Tate of many moments to become a character in his film and instead uses her as a prop of beauty and sunshine—which on one hand is fitting because Tate herself was used that way in her brief film career, but it's also a disservice because Dalton and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), get pages and pages of revelations about their internal lives, their friendship, and their current struggle in the business. Robbie does excel with what she's given, and no, dialogue isn't the only way to register as an actor (Pitt's best work here, and he is great, is also largely free of dialogue), but by having a famous man (who's never seen again in the movie) step in to tell us about the intimate dealings of a woman without ever being afforded her own internal workings, is a distancing tool simply because Tarantino wants to have Steve McQueen in his movie. Tarantino does this again by showing what Rick Dalton would've been like in Steve McQueen's Great Escape role, simply because an actor references that Dalton was considered for the part. These, plus a whole section on Italian filmmakers where QT seemingly just wanted to use a Euro-crime name generator and the producer (Al Pacino) who pursues him for the roles, plus a highlight reel of Dalton's less than stellar filmography, add bloat to a blob-like film and serve the minor purpose of commenting on the twilight years of Golden Hollywood, but they sure as shit fulfill the larger purpose of Tarantino checking off a wishlist box instead of delving into the personal lives at the end of the Cielo driveway. (That Booth got away with the murder of his wife is only mentioned as dialogue a few times but not explored in any manner is also a head-scratcher, but hey, you get a Bruce Lee scene out of it! So, again, cross that off the QT wishlist.)
It should come as no surprise with the Once Upon a Time title and his previous twist in Basterds that this is going to be revisionist history. As such, keeping Tate at such a distance from the audience makes you wonder why she was included at all and why this wasn't just a buddy movie about an actor and his stunt double. What Tarantino seems most afraid of is chaos within Hollywood. How the Tate murder brought a level of violence that faded the endless sunshine on the hills of free-wheeling excess; violent home invasion films followed, conspiracies and obsessions on perverse invaders on an uptick, youth snuffed out, the anti-establishment movement spiraling out into a snorting and cackling nightmare of youth raised by detective stories and striking back at the capitalizers of violence (Better Things' Mikey Madison gets a fantastic moment as a Manson girl).
Perhaps by focusing on 1969 Hollywood, the end of an era before New Mavericks were ushered in to remake Hollywood via tales of kitchen sink paranoia and distrust, Tarantino is perhaps commenting on his fear of filmmaking in 2019, with the New Mavericks being streaming services and theaters fading into a more opulent past. Or rather, streamers are probably the cackling murderers who are knocking on his door to murder what he loves most. Funny, though, that Tarantino has basically become a mini-series filmmaker. His films are getting flabby and episodic but they're pre-packaged to binge by being a single sitting in a theater. And though this write-up sounds mostly negative that's only because I see this is a lesser work from a (once?) talented filmmaker. It is lesser because it feels like a series of riffs, rather than a cohesive whole.
Tarantino gets in his own way a lot with asides, it's heartening to see Tarantino delve into friendship—even if the leads don't share a ton of screen time, they are still tied together in their absence moments. There is a warmth here that hasn't been present in his work since Jackie Brown. It works great as a hangout movie. And the ending is Wolf of Wall Street quaaludes-level of insanity and toxic hilarity (I would like to note again that Pitt has become one of the best actors in silent moments).
The soul of the film, and there is more ethereal soul here than QT has shown in a long time, is in Leonardo DiCaprio's scenes with the child actor and Margot Robbie's feet up in the movie theater enjoying the audience laughing at her klutz of a character. The ending is entertaining filmmaking and it perhaps serves as a bridge from 1960s Hollywood reverence to the exploitation films that Tarantino chose to love in the 70s as opposed to the work of the New Mavericks that the 70s are most known for.
Still, despite some resplendent and WONDERFUL moments and injections of kindness and sympathy, this film is best described by the way Cliff Booth feeds his dog: dropping two massive heaps of canned food into a bowl, telling the dog he can't eat if he whines, and then topping it off with a pile of dry food, saying, okay come get it. Tarantino is Booth in this instance and we are the dog, subjected to sit and watch and not critique or complain, because Tarantino is only making one more movie, damnit! Now that you've been patient, here's the violence. Smug grin.