*Caution: This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I feel that the very nature of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and how its ending rewrites history, makes it an incredibly difficult film to discuss without talking about said ending. So again, big spoiler warning here!*
Quentin Tarantino has certainly earned his reputation as one of cinema’s premiere directors. His indelible vision is unique among his peers and contemporaries, with his excessive style feeling downright hyperactive when compared to pretty much anyone else in the industry. Tarantino is known for his unconventional narrative structures, over-the-top characters, and flamboyant aesthetics. But for all the wonder Tarantino’s style is capable of creating, it can also get the better of him at times. For every Tarantino film that is helped by his insistence on style, there’s one that’s hindered by it, with stories that feel disjointed as a consequence of putting said style over all else. Unfortunately, I believe Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s newest feature, falls into the lesser half of the Tarantino echelon for these very reasons.
Ten years ago, Quentin Tarantino released Inglourious Basterds, a film which rewrote history by means of ending WWII quite differently than how things went down in real life. Basterds received widespread acclaim, with many hailing it as Tarantino’s best film that isn’t Pulp Fiction.
Alas, this is where I must confess an unpopular opinion: Inglourious Basterds may very well be my least favorite Tarantino film up to this point (sure, Death Proof is usually considered the director’s weakest effort, but at least that film was supposed to be a cheesy B-movie). Despite the originality Basterds brought to the table thanks to its narrative structure and the fact that it, y’know, rewrote the final days of World War II, the film ended up suffering just as much (if not more) from it.
In its insistence on turning WWII into, well, a Tarantino film (excessive, stylized violence, an irreverent, smartass-y attitude, etc.), Inglourious Basterds ultimately felt like two different movies crashed into each other, and desperately scrambled to put all the pieces together into a singular film. The end result was a film that featured many scenes and characters who felt pointless to the overall narrative (remember how Michael Fassbender’s character was introduced in one scene, only to be killed off in the next?), and two overarching storylines that felt more conflicting towards one another than anything.
Why am I going on about my unpopular opinion of a decade-old Tarantino film? Because the very things that made Ingloruous Basterds feel so clunky come back in full force in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like Basterds before it, Hollywood rewrites real world history. And also like Basterds, Hollywood seems to have a difficult time staying focused on a particular scenario, and features a number of scenes and characters that feel pointless to the overall narrative. And both films also have Brad Pitt in a prominent role.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, in many ways, the spiritual sequel to Inglourious Basterds. Admittedly, Hollywood doesn’t feature the same Tarantino hallmarks of excessiveness in the same way Basterds did (this movie staves off the violence until the last few minutes of its nearly three hour runtime, though they’re also probably the most violent moments in any Tarantino flick). So even those who who loved Inglourious Basterds might get a wee bit antsy at times with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though personally, I might give Hollywood the slight edge over Basterds, for two simple reasons.
The first reason is that the main characters of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are much more interesting than those of Inglourious Basterds. Hollywood stars Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once-prolific television actor who, in 1969, is struggling with his career when he tried to make the leap to the big screen, which resulted in the cancellation of his show in the process. Dalton is often accompanied by his former stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who keeps Dalton’s behavior in check amidst the actor’s emotional struggles.
The other reason I would bump this film slightly ahead of Inglourious Basterds in the Tarantino canon is that, while Basterds’ rewriting of history was a fun twist, it did come off as more of a stunt. An extension of Tarantino’s overall lavish stylization, if you will. It was a means for Tarantino to metaphorically jump out and say “Surprise!” to the audience. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino rewrites history in a way that he takes a horrific, tragic event that it’s clear the director has strong feelings about, and gives it a happy ending instead. A kind of ideal fantasy version of history that only the arts could make possible.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tackles the tragic 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate (portrayed in Hollywood by Margot Robbie), her unborn child (Tate was eight and a half months pregnant at the time), and four other adult visitors in Tate’s rented home at the hands of the Manson “family” cult, specifically members Tex Watson (portrayed by Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia Krenwinkle (Madisen Beaty).
Suffice to say, things play out a bit differently in Tarantino’s universe. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rick Dalton happens to be Sharon Tate’s neighbor. Cliff Booth lives in a trailer with his pit bull, Brandy, but is just as often found hanging around at Dalton’s. In Tarantino’s universe, the Manson cult (fittingly portrayed as bumbling, incompetent dumbasses) run afoul of Dalton as they’re making their way to Tate’s house to commit the murders. The cult members are temporarily spooked off, until deciding to kill Dalton before moving on to Tate’s house. Once they break into Dalton’s place, however, the evil cult is greeted by Cliff and Brandy. Cliff is not only a stuntman (thus knowing how to take a hit), but also a war veteran, so he has had more than a little combat experience. Though the Manson “family” members have murderous intent, they are ultimately a bunch of drugged-up cultists who probably wouldn’t stand a chance against a war veteran and his attack dog in a fight.
Spoiler alert: they don’t stand a chance.
Booth and Brandy violently kill Tex and Patricia with ease, while Susan Atkins (who, by accounts, is the one who personally took the life of Sharon Tate) is given a drawn-out, over-the-top death, with Dalton himself ultimately finishing her off with a flamethrower of all things. It’s a brutally violent sequence, but when you remember that the characters getting killed in the film are based on some of the evilest monsters in real history, it makes it a much easier pill to swallow.
Some critics have lambasted the final moments of the film for altering history with a “fairy tale ending” in which evil is vanquished and the innocent victims are allowed to live on and see a bright future. But the ending is possibly the film’s best aspect. It comes across as cathartic for Tarantino, to take a tragic event that affected an art form he’s loved his whole life, and to undo said tragedy entirely. The ending’s naysayers accuse it of being “wish-fulfillment,” but the way I see it, if it entails giving murder victims the chance to live full lives and for their murderers to get their comeuppance, that’s wish-fulfillment I can get behind.
More importantly, however, is that Sharon Tate’s surviving sister Debra – who for decades has been preventing Hollywood from exploiting her sister’s murder – approved the film, giving Tarantino her blessing upon reading the script. If someone so closely affected by such a tragedy can see the beauty in Tarantino’s “wish-fulfillment,” well I think that says it all.
I may be raving about the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – and while it’s great that the film goes out on a high note – I still ultimately feel that it fails to reach its full potential, because the road to get to that ending is so bumpy. It’s a great final act that seemingly comes out of nowhere, since so much of the film seems to forget what it’s all building up to (at its worst, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate – arguably the best character of the film – is largely forgotten for long stretches of time).
There’s so much about the film that comes across as filler. One scene involving Cliff Booth having a confrontation with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) seems to serve no purpose other than to establish Cliff as a capable fighter as he one-ups Bruce Lee (though the film establishes Cliff’s toughness in other ways, making the scene in question seem all the more superfluous). The scene is also questionable for its depiction of Bruce Lee, who comes across as an arrogant hack who can’t back up any of the things he brags about. It just seems like a pointless defamation of Bruce Lee on Tarantino’s part.
You could argue that the film is more of a character study of both Dalton and Booth than it is focused on its rewriting of history, but that in itself creates a similar problem to Basterds in that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is torn between two different stories it wants to tell, with neither narrative interacting in any meaningful way. Dalton and Booth are never seen doing so much as conversing with Sharon Tate until the last frame of the film, and even then, the conversation is inaudible to the audience.
When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is working as a character study, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, both Dalton and Booth can be interesting characters, and the relationship between the two is pretty unique. At first it seems that the film is going for the deadbeat friend angle, with Booth holding Dalton’s career back, due to the stigma against Booth (there’s rumor that Booth murdered his wife, a rumor that the film neither confirms nor denies). No one but Dalton will dare hire Booth, initially leading the audience to believe it’s his presence that’s getting in the way of Dalton’s once-promising acting career. But it doesn’t take long to see that without Booth, Dalton would be even more of a wreck, with Booth preventing Dalton’s demons from getting the better of him (well, any more than they do) through his level-headedness and friendship.
Both main characters have the potential to be some of Tarantino’s all-time greats, due to a few great character moments sprinkled throughout the film, their unique friendship, and the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have surprisingly good chemistry. Unfortunately, because Hollywood gets so sidetracked so often, they don’t quite reach their full potential.
One of Tarantino’s trademarks may be sharp dialogue that’s often removed from the plot. But here, if the characters spout any “removed from the plot” dialogue, it’s only because the plot is so loose and shaky to begin with, as opposed to giving us a deeper insight into the characters’ personalities, lives and interests. Dalton and Booth get a few good moments, but not enough to make the loose narratives feel like a justified excuse for the film to focus solely on their personalities.
The film also deals with the emergence of the “New Hollywood” era. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood simultaneously seems to celebrate the New Hollywood era for the autersmanship that came with it, and lamenting some of Hollywood’s more simplistic tendencies that may have been lost in the transition (as reflected in Dalton’s struggling career, with Dalton becoming typecast as one-off villains in TV series, repeatedly falling to the up-and-coming actors who portray the heroes). It’s an interesting take on one of cinema’s biggest revolutions, and it’s obvious Tarantino has a lot of strong feelings about the era. So the film has a very personal retrospective feel to it in this regard.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly a unique film, even by Tarantino’s standards, considering it keeps most of the director’s tendencies at bay until its final moments. I figure some of Tarantino’s fans will absolutely love it, and others (such as myself)… not so much. I still think it’s definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of Tarantino’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my mixed feelings towards it are reflected on a larger scale.
Suffice to say, I don’t think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among Tarantino’s better films, as it has too many concepts it wants to tackle without having the ability to dedicate enough depth to enough of those concepts, despite being three hours long. And unlike a few other Tarantino films with long running times, Once Upon a Time definitely feels long.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood definitely has its merits and its moments (with particular praise going once again to Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate). But for every moment of Tarantino brilliance found in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there are more than a few that will try the patience for even the great director’s more diehard fans.