Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★

Entertaining, expertly-constructed, humorous, very satisfying by its finale, but ultimately disappointing.

The craft of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is undeniable. The cinematography and editing is fantastic, the performances are excellent, the aesthetic and atmosphere are gorgeous. On a technical level, the movie is absolutely stunning. The same can be said for its co-leads; the chemistry between DiCaprio and Pitt as fading actor Rick Dalton and stuntman Cliff Booth is second to none. Both actors elevate the film’s weaker segments through sheer charisma and talent. Watching the two hang out, banter back and forth, reminiscence is the comedic glue that holds the movie together.

Also undeniable is that the final act might be one of the most satisfying sequences Tarantino has ever done. Comedic yet uncomfortably brutal, cathartic yet melancholic, the final 30 minutes is a whirlwind of suspense, subversion, fist-pumping pay-off, and shocking violence. It almost makes up for the meandering pace, disjointed plotting, and frustrating structure of the overall film.

Jackie Brown was a common point of comparison in reviews and impressions, but that movie’s slow-burn hang-out vibe never felt like filler or excess. It was restrained but never boring; every scene felt purposeful. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is restrained too, shockingly restrained for a modern Tarantino movie. I might even use the word “languid”.

It’s odd; the craft is extremely energetic, intercutting the present plot with flashbacks, cutaways, scenes from in-universe movies. But the way the movie gradually built toward major moments and sets up the finale was practically sleep-inducing at times. A sizable chunk of the runtime is devoted to Leo’s Rick Dalton perfecting his villain role on a Western show. The scenes themselves are very entertaining, funny, compelling, and effectively develop his character. In a vacuum, I’d love to watch more of those moments. But in the overall scheme of the plot, knowing that this all would somehow lead to that fateful August night, the movie felt like it was spinning its wheels.

A number of scenes could be described in a similar fashion, particularly in regards to Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. Her inclusion was shockingly inconsequential, arguably to the point of only being a red herring; given the actual events behind the plot, her minimal presence was confounding and frustrating. 

The second half of the movie was stronger than the first, as plot threads began to merge. One sequence in particular involving Cliff and the infamous Manson Family ranch is a masterclass of eerie tension. But then the film suddenly begins accelerating towards the finale in such an incongruous fashion, as if it had gotten bored of that meandering pace and just wanted to get to the fun chaos already. Jarring narration and time-jumps staple two hours of build-up to a rollicking blood-soaked conclusion. As thrilling and satisfying as those final minutes are, I left the theater with a sense of “...that’s it?”