- Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
- Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
- Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie
- Classification R
- 161 minutes
Quentin Tarantino has finally done it – he’s made his comic-book movie.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the director’s ninth film (or tenth, depending on your Kill Bill math), isn’t being marketed as a superhero movie, nor is it some sly narrative plank leading unsuspecting audiences toward the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in its thin conception, shaggy form and muddy execution – and in its glee in coasting on a perceived aura of cool whiz-pow-bang energy – the film is as much a comic-book movie as they come.
Consider the on-screen evidence. The film focuses on two 1969 Hollywood types, past-his-prime television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his drinking buddy/stunt double/gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Throughout the bright, primary-coloured film, the two men display near-superhuman feats of strength and bravery, with Cliff even going toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and coming out on top. Cliff’s humble abode, meanwhile, is littered with comics. There’s a violent climax that is deliberately unbelievable. And Tarantino even soundtracks the closing credits to the old Batman TV show theme. The film doesn’t bother or care to define which member of its dynamic duo is Bruce Wayne and which is Dick Grayson (both Rick and Cliff flit between the two roles), but in every other way, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Tarantino’s The Dark Knight.
This shouldn't be mistaken for a compliment.
For much of the 161-minute film – which proceeds at a meandering pace that, while never uninteresting, offers solid evidence that no one today dares tell Tarantino “no” – I wrestled with a question that I never before had while watching a Q.T. joint: Why?
As in, why did the filmmaker decide that Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood was the story he had to tell? And why did he decide to tell it in such a distracted, ultimately empty fashion that it might as well be a dime-store comic, destined for the dumpster?
Maybe the answer is simple indulgence. Of all Tarantino’s movies, this is the most Tarantino-iest – a winky, bloody and preposterous trip inside the filmmaker’s idea of what Hollywood used to be – or should be but never really was. The movie takes place in “1969 Hollywood” only in the way that Kill Bill took place in a Japan where travellers freely carried samurai swords on commercial airliners, or how Inglourious Basterds took place in a Second World War-era Germany where Hitler was blown to bits by a machine-gun-toting Eli Roth. Once Upon a Time’s landscape is history filtered through the whirling projector of a grindhouse cinema or the grimy box-office window of a drive-in left to seed.
Real-life figures cross paths with the fictional Rick and Cliff – including Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate and Damian Lewis’s Steve McQueen – but everyone and everything, fictional or not, is conceptualized via Tarantino’s C-movie vision board. The film is absolutely obsessed with its own alt-reality, one in which posters and marquees for 1976′s sexploitation comedy Tanya and 1970′s biker thriller C.C. & Company – genre garbage that only Tarantino really remembers – anachronistically crowd the frame. Ultimately, Tarantino’s own movie becomes one of those forgotten pieces of cinematic trash, too. Albeit trash filled with clever dialogue, gorgeous cinematography and performances that the producers of the Joe Namath-starring C.C. & Company would have actually killed for.
When Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood was first announced as taking place during the summer of ’69, many brows were furrowed that this would be Tarantino’s unholy spin on the Manson Family murders, the perfect cultural firebomb. Turns out, the movie only flirts with that storyline, and the result is easier and more juvenile than many might have predicted. Manson is still here (played, briefly, by an effectively twitchy Damon Herriman), and Tate’s story is technically the film’s third narrative strand. But Robbie gets only about a dozen lines of dialogue total, with Tarantino more invested in Rick and Cliff’s travails. Which is a shame, given that neither of the men are particularly interesting departures from entertainment-industry caricatures (the drunk has-been, the shady tough guy), and what details Tarantino does offer on the pair edge closer to eye-rolling than engaging.
DiCaprio and Pitt are too good at being movie stars to ever not be compelling, but they seem hungry for something more here, something that their director isn’t willing to give them. Perhaps that’s because Tarantino already awarded most of the film’s colour and volume to its many, many, many day-player characters, with Q.T. regulars such as Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Zoe Bell and Michael Madsen sucking up all the oxygen and having far more fun with their two or three minutes of screen-time. And the less said about Robbie the better. Not because she’s bad – only because her brief appearances so frustratingly hint at a larger, layered performance that Tarantino had no interest in her delivering.
The few moments where Tarantino is interested in his film’s women, though, are more distressing and cannot go unmentioned. For the second movie in a row now, the filmmaker has not only engineered brutal acts of violence against his female characters but attempted to make audiences complicit in the endorsement of such violations. Just as The Hateful Eight encouraged us to cheer every time Jennifer Jason Leigh’s foul-mouthed villain got punched in the face, Once Upon a Time culminates in the gory murder of two women, but in scenes designed to elicit fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing catharsis.
It was easy, or easier, to defend, say, Kill Bill’s many acts of violence against Uma Thurman’s Beatrix, as they were the other half of an empowerment story. Just as you could attempt to balance Death Proof’s first-half massacre of a car-load of women with the film’s ending, which embraces the triumphant final-girl trope of the slasher movie to a ridiculous degree.
The director tried a similar trick in The Hateful Eight and doubles down in Once Upon a Time, attempting to wash away gender like he’s merely an equal-opportunity bloodshed artist. The obfuscation may work on some – I heard more than a few chuckles when one of Once Upon a Time’s ostensible heroes smashes a woman’s face to bits during my press screening – but the new film only confirms the disgustingly clear truth that Tarantino has a very real, very perverse fondness for destroying the female body.
Tarantino’s supreme talent has always been twined with an equal level of self-confidence. But there is little to be cocky about in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and much to be troubled by. And if there is one urgency driving the film, one thematic call to arms that Tarantino acolytes will rally behind, it is only the obvious lament of “they sure don’t make movies like they used to, do they?” Maybe there’s a reason for that.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood opens July 26