Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino is indulgent. It’s nothing new. What is more surprising is that his indulgences in OUATIH are a mixed bag, thematically slapdash despite their occasional brilliance.

This is an atypical film from QT. Rather than an extended and multifaceted plot threading itself over time, we see the meandering stories of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading actor, and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Both are essentially reprobates, selfish and conceited. DiCaprio foregrounds Rick’s distasteful egotism and self-pity as the once-loved Western star comes to terms with his new position as bad-guy-of-the-week. We see his alcoholism and immature dependencies, though he has a degree of loveable foolishness to fall back on.

Cliff, meanwhile, is a more baffling fixture in the film. A ripped and virile implied wife-murderer, his eyes are drawn to young women at all times, with proof of ID the main obstacle to sexual conquest. He is, in short, a creepy, violent scumbag. Yet the camera and script lionise him as a masculine ideal. He literally beats the shit out of Bruce Lee, not to mention a fair few hippies.

Around these two buffoons, the well-known story of the Manson family is unfolding in coy references and background details. Rick lives next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and an entanglement seems inevitable. When it eventually comes, it is unearned and borderline baffling.

To be clear, there are moments and sequences in OUATIH that are mightily impressive. Workaday drives are injected with technique and energy by audacious camerawork. An extended scene at an abandoned movie ranch show how adept Tarantino is at swapping genres, summoning full horror. On 35mm the colour of the frames is sometimes staggering in its warmth.

Yet it’s clear that Tarantino is playing some sort of game here. He obviously has something he wants to say about the glory years of Hollywood; about sexism; about the hippie movement; about the fetishisation of Bruce Lee. Yet those messages and more are repeatedly muddied by inconsistent pacing and lengthy digressions. More to the point, though, there seems a greater risk than ever that his messages are potentially regressive or offensive.

Accusations of charicature relating to the portrayal of Bruce Lee (with no credit taken from actor Mike Moh) feel entirely fair. Margot Robbie does a marvellous job of injecting interiority and vivacity into a sylph-like Tate in the script, but the female characters are largely two-dimensional. Cliff is, on paper, a monstrous thug, but is played like a charming hero. It’s all somewhat baffling.

Tarantino’s verve behind the camera is powerful, and makes OUATIH worth a viewing, but can’t smooth over the cracks of an oddly put-together fable. These tonal uncertainties come to a head in its denouement, a sequence that would be shocking from another filmmaker but is actually hokey in the way he likely hoped.

Yet that “well, it’s how I wanted it, so suck it” hokeyness is Tarantino’s weakness now. It feels a bit passé, a little predictable. OUATIH has energy in spades, but nonetheless feels tired. QT’s love of vintage cinema and TV can really only carry it so far.

One thought on “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

  1. “Cliff is, on paper, a monstrous thug, but is played like a charming hero”. Well said. Rare to see a character with that combination on screen. Agree it’s tonally quite inconsistent though I think QT likes to surprise the audience, he always has, even in Pulp Fiction

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