Format: Blu-ray from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
I learned when doing the 1001 Movies list that there was a real benefit to watching the longest films I could get my hands on first, at least psychologically. I’ve been sitting on a Blu-ray of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood since the middle of March but really haven’t had the opportunity to watch it. I’ve also been dreading it slightly; I have a strange relationship with the films of Quentin Tarantino. I’ve said for a long time that I think he’d be a lot better if he stopped trying to be awesome and instead tried to be just good.
Not surprisingly, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a film that tries very hard to be awesome and ends up being merely self-indulgent. For starters, it runs 161 minutes long, and, judiciously, I think I could knock out half an hour of it without losing a great deal. And that’s going to be the theme here. I know that I’m in the minority when it comes to Tarantino; everyone seems to like his films more than I do, or to casually overlook his flaws in the interests of bread an circuses. In a lot of ways, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood feels like he wants to break away just a touch from that habit of showing off, but he can’t quite get there. There’s still a lot of excess here that seems to serve no other purpose than servicing Tarantino’s ego.
On the surface, this is the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a heading-toward-washed-up television actor still trying to hang onto the career he once had. In the ‘50s, Dalton was the lead in a popular television western, but he wanted a movie career, and his life now seems to be guest appearances where he plays the heavy. He and his stunt double/personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) spend their days on sets and their nights drinking too much. Thoughts start churning in Dalton’s head when he is approached by Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) with an offer to star in spaghetti western films.
That’s the backdrop through which we’re going to see the rest of the story. A part of that story is the fact that Rick Dalton happens to live next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). And it’s going to be important that, at one point, Cliff picks up a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley), who wants a ride to the Spahn Ranch where Cliff once worked as Dalton’s stunt double. The Spahn Ranch just happens to be, at the time, the location of the Manson Family, of which Cliff’s young hitchhiker is a part.
And so, that’s where we’re going to go. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a rewriting of the night of Sharon Tate’s murder at the hands of the Manson Family. In this world, the killers approach just as Rick and Cliff have returned from six months in Italy and, recognizing that Rick Dalton was a man who committed a lot of murders on television in their youth, decide instead to attack them rather than Sharon Tate and her guests. From a basic “What if?” perspective, I love the idea. My problem, as mentioned above, is that it takes forever to get to this point.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is something more than two hours of set up to get to that final confrontation. And for what it’s worth, I get that, too. There are plenty of movies that follow that same sort of pattern—concurrent stories that all end up at the same place, and in this case, the idea of perhaps giving a real life to Sharon Tate is a lovely one. But there’s a lot here that doesn’t really need to be seen or shown. A lot of this is just trying to be cool rather than useful and necessary to the storytelling.
For instance, there is an extended sequence of Rick and Cliff working a guest spot on “The Green Hornet.” That’s fine, but this devolves into a fight between Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Cliff, and offers us the wankery fantasy of beaten-up, old stuntman Cliff Booth actually going toe-to-toe with in-his-prime Bruce Lee. This entire sequence seems to exist solely to have “Bruce Lee” make a cameo and for Tarantino to give a couple of minutes of screen time to Zoe Bell. And I knew at the moment I decided to bring this up that there will be people who, reading this paragraph, thought, “But that scene was really cool!” Okay, sure, beyond the “white guy is good enough to throw Bruce Lee around” fantasy aspect, cool it may be. But was it necessary? Did it do a damn thing for the story?
Another example—it’s a very cute scene when Sharon Tate goes to a theater to watch herself in a movie. It’s cute when we see her reaction to the crowd reacting to her character. It’s a nice little bit of character for someone who we’re going to want to see survive the picture. But of course we’re going to get an extended shot of her bare feet propped up on the seat in front of her. Why? Purely for self-indulgence.
It’s a shame, too, because this might well be Leonardo DiCaprio’s best work in front of the camera in a long time. It’s great that he finally won an Oscar a couple of years ago (and it’s nice that Pitt has now won one for acting—one he deserved for 12 Monkeys at the very least), but DiCaprio is near-perfect as an aging action star trying desperately to hang on to his career and his relevance.
Cut 20 minutes and I probably raise my review half a star. Cut 35, and it’s one of the best movies of last year.
Why to watch Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: This might be Leonardo DiCaprio at his best.
Why not to watch: Like most Tarantino, it’s wildly self-indulgent.