The highly-anticipated ninth film from fan-favorite auteur Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is different from anything we have seen from the writer-director before. A sprawling character piece set in the City of Angels in 1969, the movie constantly defies your expectations from beginning to end, but not always in a good way.
One of the most noticeable differences between this and Tarantino’s other work is that this film is extremely light on plot. For the first two acts of the movie, you are just wandering through the streets of L.A. with the characters as they interact with different historical figures and provide commentary on the Golden Age of Hollywood. This film is obviously a love letter to the era in which it is set, and while that is respectable, that doesn’t make the movie compelling enough to be worth watching.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this film is that it feels excessive in almost every way. The movie is simply far too long. Granted, a majority of Tarantino’s films have clocked in at over two and a half hours, but in the past, he has managed to keep you entertained constantly from beginning to end. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, on the other hand, drags for two hours before finishing in an exciting finale that will do nothing but make you wish the whole movie had been like that.
Also disappointing is that the film largely lacks the wit characteristic of Tarantino’s scripts. The dialogue doesn’t bounce or flow like it does in his more successful movies. Instead, the dialogue ends up feeling mostly cold and emotionless, apart from a handful of really solid scenes in which the film goes into existential territory. In terms of humor, there were only two parts which stood out as particularly funny, one of which is the Bruce Lee scene shown almost in its entirety in the trailer.
Additionally, for a character study, the movie didn’t have fully developed characters. The only character who had an extremely compelling arc was Western movie star Rick Dalton. DiCaprio gives a solid (but not mind-blowing performance) in the role, with one or two scenes (again, shown in the trailers) that stood out. The film is certainly at its best when it is exploring Rick’s existential qualms, but it gets side-tracked by tangents too often to draw you into the movie as a whole.
Rick’s stunt double, Cliff, doesn’t have much of an arc of his own. Although there are some not-so-subtle implications about his own existential crisis, not enough time is spent exploring them, with more of the focus instead being placed on Rick. Cliff, therefore, serves as little more than a device to push the plot forward. Brad Pitt gives a fun performance in the role, but it is far from his best or most complex work.
The main real-life character in the film, the late Sharon Tate, is criminally underused by Tarantino. A controversy arose at the Cannes Film Festival debut when an audience member asked about why Tate’s part in the movie was so small and Tarantino responded by saying, “I reject your hypothesis.” Supposedly more was added to Tate��s storyline in post-production, but it couldn’t have been much, as the character gets no more than five minutes of screen time. Margot Robbie’s performance in the role is fine, although she is only given a few lines in which she has to impersonate Tate, most of the rest of her duties being walking around in short skirts.
The supporting ensemble for the film is definitely very large and filled with talented actors and actresses, but none of them feels properly used. Some cast members, such as Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Margaret Qualley, and Kurt Russell give memorable performances — you just wish there was more to be seen of them. Others, like Dakota Fanning and Bruce Dern, had no particularly good reason to be included.
This movie also feels like one of Tarantino’s weaker efforts on a technical level. Stylistically, the film seems like a mash-up of a bunch of other techniques that Tarantino used in other movies, and as such, feels wildly inconsistent. The film doesn’t have something like the beautiful 70mm cinematography of The Hateful Eight to make it stand out. It doesn’t look bad — it just doesn’t look as good as it should. The only redeeming quality of the execution is the soundtrack, which is filled with some great music.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood surely didn’t live up to expectations. With only one more movie left before his self-imposed retirement (theoretically excluding Kill Bill Vol. 3 and the rumored Star Trek film), it is starting to seem that Tarantino didn’t set that limit to quit while he was ahead. Rather, it seems like he just didn’t have more than ten movies in him. The Hateful Eight was great, but it still felt like an expanded version of Reservoir Dogs, and this… well, this is just a mess.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is now playing in theaters.