It’s been four years since a Tarantino last hit our screens, with The Hateful Eight. Now he’s back, with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It’s both a return to form yet immensely different to everything that has gone before. It’s a sea of contradictions and juxtapositions, just like the film’s title. Also, just like the title, the film is a sporadically fascinating blend of reality and fiction. Undoubtedly, it’s an apt way of presenting the place where appearance and reality are most at odds in the pursuit of wealth and entertainment.
The ‘Once Upon A Time’ overtly states this from the outset, an allusion to fairy tales and storytelling. What we are about to see it not a presentation of Hollywood as it was, in 1969. Instead it is a presentation of how Hollywood presented itself at this time, making the film a tribute to a time that didn’t actually exist – creating a tone that is both yearning and haunting yet ultimately profoundly superficial.
We spend the film’s running time of 161 minutes with an array of characters, each inspired by reality to varying degrees. The friendship between fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is our entry point, the centre of the film and where most of it’s heart comes from. Both actors provide some of the best performances of their respective careers, with Rick being horrific yet surprisingly sympathetic. The star is fading narrative is a familiar one, yet DiCaprio’s committed performance finds pathos within it. His frustrations at the industry, many of which are self-inflicted and inadvertently self-sabotaging and presented in a manner that somehow sort of likeable. Whilst you wouldn’t want to get stuck in a lift with him, there’s a universality in his fears of a life wasted and dreams deferred.
Although it’s DiCaprio’s character that is the leading man, Pitt as Cliff provides some of the film’s most memorable moments. And that’s not just a reference to the shirtless scene on a rooftop that belies his 55 years. There’s a scene involving hallucinogenics that is one of the funniest scenes of the year so far, pitched so perfectly by Pitt. The bromance between the pair is peak Tarantino, the co-dependency between them making for tender yet amusing watching.
It’s a shame that, within this dialogue, the dry and wry wit of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction just isn’t there. Rick and Cliff could easily have rivalled Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction, in terms of well-balanced pairings yet they’re not given any beats that are all that memorable. And certainly not anything that is as iconic as an analysis on McDonalds in France or utilisation of a now legendary swearword.
However, it’s Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate that most suffers from this aspect. She’s immensely under-used and ill-served by the script, given little to do beyond look great and be charming. Her standout moment, watching herself in the cinema, reinforces how wasted she is. An interpretation of this could be that this was what the era was like, or this represents how she was viewed by men/the masses at the time. But it makes for uneasy watching. As does the reappearance of Tarantino’s foot fetish – it feels captious to complain that there’s far too many close-ups of feet, but there’s really too much feet – a needless amount that do nothing to enhance the on-goings.
Ultimately, what makes OUATIH so frustrating is that it has moments of proper brilliance. Most, but not all, of these feature Brandy the dog. All being well, Brandy will be the winner of the (should exist but doesn’t yet) award for 2019’s best performance by a dog. Her scenes, and a handful of others, hint at what this film could have been. Otherwise the film is a long plod through Tarantino’s reflections on Hollywood in 1969 that are summed up pretty well by the shrug emoji. It feels like he’s squandered the film’s potential in favour of self-satisfied ruminations that aren’t nearly as profound as he wants us to believe. A serving of meh with a small side of wow.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is out August 15th.