Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

A Wilhelm Scream in the first 90 seconds. In a movie about the last days of old Hollywood before guys like George Lucas and his sound guy, Ben Burtt, who made the damn sound effect an in-joke of the movies, took over. Okay.

You can't exactly call this a tight, driving story, now can you? I'm 45 minutes into this thing, and there's less a story and more of a tone poem showing how much Tarantino likes late 60s era Hollywood. You gotta give him and his production designers credit, the thing looks like it was shot in period with modern cameras. There's not a hair out of place, and not a non-period wristwatch, nothing. All the TV and radio ads seems legit, and while the period is before my time, I'm guessing he used legit period recordings, or one hell of an audio production team.

But I'll be Goddamned if I can tell you what this movie is, you know, about. At one point, a child actress - a child method actress, showing, like almost everything else in the movie, that DiCaprio's time is rapidly coming to an end - asks him what the novel he's reading is about. He tells her he can't say because he's only halfway through, and man, do I get it. I mean, DiCaprio's on his way down, Pitt's already there thanks to maybe killing his wife, while Sharon Tate is ascendant, although we know she's boned thanks to Charlie Manson wandering around - literally - but... what's it about?

The one thing this movie has going for it is a sense of inevitability. We know that new Hollywood, and then Spielberg and Lucas and blockbusters, wipe the slate clean on 90 percent of early TV and B movie stars, except for Eastwood, who was at least smart enough to take that Italian Western money. We know that Manson is gonna sweep through Cielo Drive and put an end to Sharon Tate's dream (although enough time has passed since this flick opened, and I've been semi-spoiled enough, that I'm pretty sure there'll be an Inglorious Basterds intervention in some way, shape or form.

That inevitability gives the flick its first real tension, when Cliff rolls up on Spahn Movie Ranch. Now, we know who lived there, and we know that some people went missing from there thanks to the residents, so there's some concern over what will happen to Cliff... but then Tarantino gives us a certain amount of catharsis at the end of the sequence - which I'm guessing is Tarantino giving us a nod toward eventually messing around with historical events, which, God help me if what I heard about the ending was right, might become one of Tarantino's things, like feet.

At the two-hour mark, we jump ahead six months, having spent a couple of hours with a couple of old Hollywood guys spinning their wheels. It feels very much like The Hateful Eight, only in reverse - instead of a flashback, it's a flash forward, but we still get sudden narration, for the first time in the flick, only from Kurt Russell instead of Tarantino himself. It's jarring, the way it was in Hateful Eight, but it works in an opposite way here; in that movie, it stopped the momentum cold. Here, it finally puts the movie into some kind of gear, dropping us into the night of the Manson killings, which will add a certain amount of urgency to matters.

...and right out of the gate, Tarantino tells us that things aren't gonna play out the way they do in Helter Skelter. Which is certainly cathartic, and Tarantino indulges in his full cinematic violent urges, which make the whole thing even more fun, I guess... but make no mistake, this doesn't work anywhere near as well as the same conceit does in Inglorious Basterds.

That movie spent a long time building up tension, against worthy adversaries. There was real concern as to whether the protagonists would come out alive or not. Here? Brad Pitt kicked the shit out of Bruce Lee, for Christ's sake. He knocked Clem from the Manson Family on his ass and made him change a tire for him. Plus, when the Manson kids break into Dalton's house, Pitt is in full stoner, True Romance, giggle mode; he doesn't take the threat seriously, so there's no way I could.

And frankly, that's a serious problem with the climax. Tarantino is relying on the audience's knowledge of the monstrosity of the Manson Family's actions to do the heavy lifting of making them reasonable antagonists, but then he shows us a pack of halfwits. Tarantino gives us a nod at making Tex Watson someone to be feared, but he only shows us other Family members calling for him when things get heavy, Tarantino never shows us Tex actually doing anything. Imagine an Inglorious Basterds without Hans Lanza, because Tarantino assumed that knowing Hitler was a bad guy would be enough. That movie would suck, wouldn't it? Yes. Yes it would.

Certainly the climax isn't the whole movie, but considering how much of the movie is really just a loose love letter for a small period of time in Los Angeles, where we really just get to know a former A-list star on the wane, a below-the-line loser and a doomed up-and-comer (and there, only barely), the climax fucking matters. Tarantino has asked us to spend two and a half hours to change bloody history into a fairy tale... but what's the point? That old Hollywood could have saved new Hollywood? That a real man could have stopped the Manson Family? That Brad Pitt is an unstoppable force of nature when he's high?

I mean, one of the points of Basterds is that the power of film itself could give us the kind of catharsis that movie's climax gave us, but all the pieces we needed to determine that were in place: the plan literally involved killing Hitler at a movie, using film itself as a weapon. So using that same calculus, I guess Tarantino is telling us that the way to have avoided the Manson tragedies would have involved fifteen Margaritas, LSD and mass-produced canned dog food?

Look, this is a beautiful movie. It captures a time period very well, to the best of my knowledge. I completely buy into DiCaprio and Pitt in their roles. It's fun watching Patricia Krenwinkle get her fucking head bashed in rather than writing "piggie" on a wall in blood. But overall, I'm really kinda let down by this picture. I really had high hopes for this movie, what with it being Tarantino's return to at least a form of L.A. crime picture for the first time in 20 years, but it left me a hell of a lot flatter than I thought it was going to. I liked it... but I can't say it lived up to all the accolades it got.

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