FILM REVIEW – ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references. 161 minutes.
When Quentin Tarantino is at the top of his game, his films are the embodiment of that mathematical paradox of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. When he’s not, the resulting movie is worth seeing but more for specific moments than as a work in itself. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD falls into the latter category. Its disparate storylines do come together in the end, but the whole still plays more like a collection of scenes than a coherent work.
It’s 1960s Hollywood. More specifically, after a prologue showing western TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and close friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) being interviewed on the set of Dalton’s show, it’s 1969. Dalton (seemingly inspired by but not directly based on Clint Eastwood) is reduced to guest appearances on other’s shows, and Booth has become his driver. A producer (Al Pacino) wants to kickstart Dalton’s career by traveling to Italy and having him appear in the era’s “spaghetti westerns.”
Dalton lives next door to director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Since we know that in real life Tate was among the victims of Charles Manson and his followers, including her in the story does two things. First, it focuses on her life more than her death. Robbie isn’t given much to do but she does get a lovely sequence where she goes to a theater showing “The Wrecking Crew,” a Dean Martin spy thriller Tate appeared in, and quietly enjoying the audience’s reactions to her scenes.
Second, it allows Tarantino to indulge his bent for alternate history as in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” here with an ending that comes after some two-plus hours which play like a stream of consciousness riff on the era rather than actual storytelling.
There are standout moments. DiCaprio and Pitt have an easy rapport as two friends who try to look out for each other. Rick arranges a job for Cliff on the show where he’s the guest villain, over the skepticism of the director (Kurt Russell), and Cliff ends up in a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Rick gets into a discussion on acting with an eight-year-old member of the cast. And then there are the moments which you either go with or else roll your eyes at Tarantino’s tics, as with his obsession with women’s feet.
For all his movie savvy, Tarantino’s take on Hollywood is broad but shallow. From early versions of “A Star Is Born” and the classic “Sunset Boulevard” to more recent films like “State and Main” and “Hail Caesar!” filmmakers have dealt with the hypocrisy, egos, and raw emotions involved in the movie business. “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” adds little to that discussion, either seriously or satirically, leaving the viewer adrift. It can be entertaining, but it falls short of the filmmaker at his best.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.