Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

The question I found myself asking as I left Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was will Quentin Tarantino ever leave his comfort zone?

Furthermore, should he? After all, he's crafted a body of work that you could comfortably throw a net over in terms of just about every element. Aside from what I perceived to be a misstep with The Hateful Eight and the strange case of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 being considerably less interesting than its predecessor, he's worked within his self-imposed limits and created a thoroughly enjoyable and occasionally influential body of work.

Having proved once again with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that he can still find some room to craft an entertaining film within his hitting zone, I find myself thankful that he's found something approaching his best form here while also questioning whether a filmmaker as talented as him should really have spread his wings a lot more in his career, or certainly by this point in it.

I almost feel slightly cheated that we haven't seen him try something completely different at some point - then again, I guess The Hateful Eight is about as close as he's got on that front and that didn't go all that well. Having limitations as a filmmaker doesn't have to be a criticism at all if you can still create quality in that field on a consistent basis, but I'm unconvinced that he's as limited as he may or may not think he is.

He's never been subtle about showing off what he likes in his films, and what his influences are, and maybe his over-reliance on nostalgia is the biggest hint that maybe he does have limitations. But at least here he tackles them absolutely head-on. Rather than conversations here and there (or "mindless.... chit-chat", if you would) slotted into his films in often superfluous asides, here he has made a film that, more than anything else, directly addresses a bunch of stuff he likes. Thank fuck it wasn't about grindhouse.

That he hasn't crafted a hugely strong central narrative to contain it in is the reason why this isn't up with his very best films. In fact, it barely resembles a 'proper' film (whatever the hell that means, but I think I know what it means and that's all that matters) for the most part, jumping between scenes long and short and building up to a climax we know is on the horizon but stopping just short of showing us.

Tarantino has regularly played around with the structure of his films, of course, but without pairing it to a temporal back-and-forth, this almost almost ends up feeling like his most abstract film. It does surprise and disarm on several occasions too, especially when Brad Pitt visits the Spahn Ranc, which also adds to the offbeat feel to it. Or offbeat for a Tarantino film anyway.

The relationship between Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom are superb, could be some of the best written stuff that Tarantino has ever put on screen. While Pitt's shadowy past is glossed over slightly unsatisfactorily, their friendship is respectful and believable, and Pitt especially emerges very strongly from this. Gifted a character who's seemingly happy with his lot in life and not in a rush to pursue, or resume, a successful Hollywood career, he's the complete antithesis to what we normally see in films about those working in Hollywood.

Male friendships in mainstream cinema are almost always based on mutual cynicism and grudging respect, but these two just like each other and appreciate what they do for one another. This doesn't contain enough weight to be able to carry Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but it's about as 'pleasant' as a Tarantino film has ever got.

Where Tarantino really knocks it out of the park is regards portraying a Hollywood at a pivotal time in its history. Emerging from Hays Code restrictions and heading towards the dark and cynical 1970s, covering foreign influences, whether they be through spaghetti westerns or martial arts stars, and TV eating up fading stars and spitting them out, Tarantino covers a lot with flair and humour.

Again, there's not necessarily a lot of depth to it, but it's recognisable and fun to see it played out in this interesting fact / fiction amalgam. It's an amalgam, by the way, that I enjoy hugely when it's used correctly, and here it's bordering on seamless. That has caused conflict over Mike Moh's Bruce Lee role, and I find myself caught between both stalls here. I also think this is inevitable when you do mix real life events or interepretations with the invented.

Tarantino manages a massive cast, as ever, with ease, and introduces us to the clearly prodigal talents of young Julia Butters as well as giving Margaret Qualley a chance to further show off the edgy, sexy charisma she dazzled with in The Nice Guys. I think what I will take away most from Tarantino's film is how we almost stalk Margot Robbie around the place whenever she's on-screen.

It's almost as if he's making us feel like we're the danger to her ahead of her tragic end. There's a constant tinge of darkness to the light that perpetually shines on her, and a chill in the air whenever we see her. This may have been where Tarantino could have strengthened his film significantly, by focusing more on her story. Then again, that may have weakened his ode to a changing Hollywood landscape, and I liked this the way it was.

And considering what I expected of it, which was another disappointment, I will absolutely take it.

Steve G liked these reviews