Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★

Quentin Tarantino's best films have always benefited from strong plots peppered with colorful characters ('Reservoir Dogs', 'Pulp Fiction', and 'Jackie Brown'), whereas his lesser films have always suffered from a complete lack of narrative discipline. They often feel like self-indulgent exercises in style over substance. 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' is definitely one of these latter day Tarantino productions.

I admire anyone who tries to write a plot synopsis for this movie because there just isn't one to be found. In a nutshell: two Hollywood dudes -- one a fading film star and the other his out-of-work stunt double -- hang out and do some stuff in LA. But it's not a hangout movie like Richard Linklater's 'Dazed and Confused' where you get to spend time with authentic characters for a slice of their lives. There is nothing compelling or insightful about the main characters in 'Once Upon a Time...' They just move from scene to scene without much conflict, development or momentum. The closest we get to character development is Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, who is struggling with his post-fame years. Now there is the germ of an interesting story in that, but Tarantino doesn't really explore it, nor does he have anything of note to say on the subject. Dalton is just sad about his career, and that never changes or develops further.

Meanwhile, Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth literally spends the majority of his scenes running errands for Rick, or driving his car around town. Yes, there is a central set-piece in the film where he ends up on the Manson Family ranch, and it is the major highlight of the whole movie. The sequence is long and drawn out, for all the right reasons, and it even threatens to become genuinely tense. But then it just peters out into nothing. Because that is what this film is really about: nothing. I suppose the focus is supposed to be on the bromance between the two men, their history and friendship, yet there is little attempt to explore that in any meaningful way. The performances keep the engine running, even though QT is clearly out of creative gas, so plaudits must go to Pitt and DiCaprio for making something of their superficial parts. As for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate: oh boy. I feel sorry for both actresses because Robbie is wasted in a shiny happy woman role while the build-up to Tate's infamous fate is exploited throughout, and ultimately serves no real purpose.

Had 'Once Upon a Time...' been 100 minutes long, I might have enjoyed it more. Who needs depth and substance when you've got 1960s Hollywood nostalgia, pastiches of old westerns, and gratuitous cameos? But this movie is almost THREE HOURS long because Quentin Tarantino doesn't know how to edit himself. It's not entirely without its pleasures, but it all feels empty and hollow, as if QT got lost in the nostalgic haze of an era he never got to live through. And as his protracted narrative meanders and rambles to some semblance of a conclusion, I really struggled to understand just what the point of it all was. The technical craft of the filmmaking is to be admired, as are the uniformly excellent performances, but it is all in service of absolutely nothing.

Whatever magic QT once had it is long gone. If this is the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino then that means, by his own promise, the 10th film will be his last. Let's hope he goes back to his roots and finishes out on a high.

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