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.

This is Tarantino's most formally audacious and complicated film, but it's also his most cluttered, self-obsessed and reactionary. What plays out superficially as a paean to '60s Hollywood, and to American cinema in general, is more urgently a reflection on contemporary politics surrounding filmic representation (especially in regards to gender and violence). Tarantino uses the Manson family members as ciphers for the "politically correct" contemporary critical establishment (consider Sadie's monologue about the cultural role of movie violence, and her beyond-brutal comeuppance at the hands of macho leading men; consider also how her monologue relates to Tarantino's outrage at journalists questioning his own fixation on movie violence). This Manson family-aspect of the film plays out to me as half-assed provocation, never lent the kind of period-specific detail or moral ambiguity I would expect from, say, Tarantino's more talented cinephiliac genre contemporaries, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. Indeed, Tarantino's wider-reaching efforts at "social commentary" always seem to sink under his narcissism and a juvenile impulse to offend (see also The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds).

On the other hand, there's something intriguing about Tarantino's study of Pitt and DiCaprio as two "halves" of his cinematic-machismo fantasy (neatly demarcated as the ultra-ultra-masculine Pitt and the emasculated DiCaprio). Building off their respective star images, the actors play melancholic icons of "old masculinity" dying under the feet of hippiedom (a movement that terrifies Tarantino, and that he wrongly conflates with the Manson family, much like right-wing commentators of the '60s and '70s).

In terms of narrative, the film makes an interesting choice by melting its loose plot structure into the meandering day-to-day activities of its characters. It's more fixated on nostalgia and milieu than it is on story mechanics, and I think it's more compelling for that reason.

Unfortunately, it also sags under the weight of too many scenes, some of which simply don't land on dramatic or comedic levels. Robert Richardson's images are indelible, the performances are wonderful (especially DiCaprio, Pitt, Pacino and a woefully underused Lorenza Izzo) and the film is mostly intoxicating ... it's kind of a blast to watch. Still, I couldn't help being baffled and, yeah, a bit put off by its implicit workings as an exploitation picture, which is where I think it falters.

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