Quentin Tarantino personally drives me up a wall, but love him or hate him, QT’s a cinematic fixture. He’ll someday—guaranteed—be in the director Hall of Fame, and I have to give credit where credit is due: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is too long but very amusing.
It’s got all the QT ingredients: eye-grabbing cinematography; vibrant colors (such as a luscious, neon-orange screen text); ridiculous, bone-crunching violence; political-correctness-be-damned use of racial epithets for cheap shock value (usually one race per movie, in this case, Mexicans); excessive running time; displays of Eastern martial arts (here a brilliant Bruce Lee spoof); an uncanny knowledge of 1960s/’70s deep cuts for the soundtrack; and use of ’60s/’70s commercials and AM-radio deejay blather as an alternative soundtrack. And of course, QT’s particular brand of sneaky-but-outrageous humor.
QT’s always paying tribute to something ’60s/’70s. He’s forever nostalgia-fying. Here he nostalgia-fies about Hollywood, with a little story about fictitious B-list movie actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
It’s the summer of 1969; we’re witnessing the career nosedive of TV actor Rick Dalton, who was a big Western star in the early ’60s, but as pointed out to him by a fleabag agent (Al Pacino) hoping to rope Dalton into spaghetti Westerns, he’s being surreptitiously punked and gradually marginalized by the Hollywood industry: He’s being asked to play heavies who constantly get killed in TV-guest spots. He’s a has-been now. Drinks too much. Can’t remember his lines anymore.
Then, there are the shenanigans Cliff gets up to while waiting for his boss to get off work. Cliff’s got problems too, mind you. In addition to being Rick’s long-in-the-tooth stunt man, Cliff is also Rick’s driver, gofer, plus low-level fixer of all of Dalton’s problems as they crop up. He lives in a trailer (QT can’t pass up a good low-rent trailer) with his pit bull.
Now, while being so dependent on Rick is maybe not the most manly, independent of existences, Cliff is cool, Cliff wears moccasins, and Cliff understands, in a Zen way, Dylan’s lyric: “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Heck, Cliff is so cool, he can beat up Bruce Lee. (Apparently, Lee’s daughter was going to take legal action about QT’s bypassing her approval to feature a Lee look-alike in this movie, and you can see why). Oh, and Cliff may or may not have killed his wife. And while women will not find this funny, some men may find it a little bit funny.
Doesn’t Sound Like Much
It’s not profound, not insightful or uplifting, but like I said, it’s amusing. Rick striking up an on-set friendship with the quintessential Hollywood child-actress brat-prodigy, who becomes his psychologist and acting coach, is worth a good chuckle.
Mike Moh’s hysterical, Bruce Lee-channeling performance sends up the martial arts legend’s outsized ego. Lee probably, mostly managed to keep his ego within the realm of cool. But one just senses on a gut level (knowing well his “Beee like waaaawh-tuuuh, my friennnd” advice), it probably slipped over into the level of obnoxiousness on display here, every once in a while. Probably more often than that.
Brad Pitt, while funny and cool throughout, is also the movie’s sole moral anchor. His scene of fending off the advances of an extremely comely, hitchhiking jailbait hippie-chick (Margaret Qualley) with good humor backed by deadly seriousness and rock-solid conviction, flies in the face of the current sordid news of the world’s Wieners, Weinsteins, Epsteins, Spitzers, Bill Clintons, and Ranieres. This actually surprised me, what with QT’s general lack of a moral compass. But Cliff’s smoking an odd-looking cigarette and then sampling his pit bull’s dog food, is pretty funny.
So, speaking of the hippie-chick—after a running gag of numerous Cliff-Cadillac drive-bys, and her flirting attempts to flag him down, he finally drives her home to a now-defunct movie set/ranch. It’s populated with what is clearly a ’60s/’70s NXIVM-type cult, with a lot of scary, slightly zombified hippie girlies (Lena Dunham, Dakota Fanning, and so on).
They’re Charlie’s Angels. Charlie Manson, that is. The summer of ’69 Hollywood Hills murder ballad of what they did to Roman Polankski’s wife, the up-and-coming starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), is Hollywood legend. In QT’s version, she’s Rick Dalton’s next-door neighbor.
Will QT go there and display it in all its ghastly gruesomeness? Kinda. But not at all how you’d expect him to. And that’s a good thing.
QT’s clearly paying tribute to the ’60s/’70s buddy chemistry of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, except that those two were very manly. Whereas, while Brad Pitt has always been the newer version of Robert Redford, playing largely manly characters, DiCaprio’s character here is a serious whiner.
An amusing whiner. But the character’s endless chain-smoking, coughing, red-faced, throat-clearing, spitting, blood-shot-eyed alcoholism eventually grates.
Generally, all narratives mosey along too slowly, which is classic, too-full-of-himself Tarantino. At what feels like three hours, one senses that QT still hasn’t grasped writer William Faulkner’s advice to “kill all your darlings” and cut his films down to a normal running time, because he finds all his darling footage too precious.
However, Margot Robbie is a precious ingredient in any film and should never be given this little to do. She’s the rare beauty with great comedic talent. And while Sharon Tate’s story is anything but comedic, I do appreciate the fact that QT gave us a Hollywood ending and played everything for chuckles.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” though, makes you want to see Robbie do a Tate biopic on par with the one she did for that other tragic American girl—Tonya Harding.
‘Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood’
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Luke Perry
Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Release Date: July 26
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5
This article originally misstated what the Beatles’s song “Helter Skelter” was about and when it was written. The song, named after an amusement ride that was used as a symbol, was released in 1968. The Epoch Times regrets the error.