Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood" Views Famous Murder Through Revisionist Lens

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Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood opens everywhere 7/26/19.

I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s work since 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, a strange little criminal caper featuring a hardboiled mix of miscreants portrayed by the likes Michael Madsen and Tim Roth. Twenty-seven years later, his ninth feature film—if you count the Kill Bill films as one big one released in two parts—is Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Does the genius who created Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Bastards still have the vision to tell quirky tales of unlikely heroes as only he can?

Sure he does, from a purely technical perspective. Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood tells the tale of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), an aging television cowboy whose forays into motion pictures hasn’t gone as well as he hoped. His best friend is Cliff Booth (Pitt), Dalton’s stunt double and personal driver whose shady past makes him a pariah on the set. They live in the posh Hollywood Hills circa 1969, right next door to Roman Polansky (Rafal Zawierucha, looking like Austin Powers but speaking very little, if at all) and Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie)…yes, the actress who was murdered by members of the Charles Manson Family. Other notable cast members include Timothy Olyphant as actor James Stacy, Al Pacino as producer Marvin Schwarz, Luke Perry in his last role before his untimely death as actor Wayne Maunder, and Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke and Lena Dunham as Tex, Pussycat, Squeaky Fromme, Flower Child, and Gypsy of the Manson Family, respectively.

Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is a tale of two ideas that I found largely disconnected. As individual films, a character study of an aging actor who struggles to stay relevant in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood, the Rick Dalton/Cliff Booth story would be interesting enough. The Charles Manson Family story is more than meaty enough to support it’s own film. Marrying the two by nothing more than accidental proximity just doesn’t work for me.

It's hard to explain without getting into potential spoilers, but maybe the problem is the pacing. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino never lingered too long on any one segment of the story. After 10-20 minutes of John Travolta and Uma Thurman, he’d cut to 10-20 minutes of Bruce Willis, then 10-20 minutes of Travolta and Samuel S. Jackson, and so forth. Conversely, in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino kept everyone in the film in the same room the entire time. Either way works. Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood seemed to linger to longs at times on the Dalton story, and when we finally get to follow Booth’s story for a bit it lacked impact. Again, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but Booth is the link between the Manson Family and Sharon Tate/Rick Dalton, and the scene felt like it went on far too long for what it accomplished. It was an overblown excuse to get Bruce Dern into the film. The following may be a spoiler but I don’t think it ruins any major part of the narrative: Dern’s character is the owner of an old California ranch where they used to shoot westerns that Booth and Dalton had worked on. Booth has to exert his stronger will over various Manson followers until he can get in to see his old friend. He finds him blind, somewhere between feeble-minded and not giving a damn. He’s let the Manson gang squat on the property, and it’s unclear if he really even knows they are there. After a short visit, Booth walks back to his car and finds that one of the ranch hands had knifed his tire. He beats the guy to a pulp and makes him change his flat. And…that’s it. There’s no payoff. The scene with Pitt and Dern seemed like it was something Tarantino thought would be funny, but it came off rather sad and perhaps a little mean-spirited if you have experience dealing with elderly dementia. Booth doesn’t mention the Manson Family to Dalton, and just goes about his business until the climax. He recognized a couple of the intruders at that point, but so what—he was still going to defend himself whether they were strangers or acquaintances, would he not? I can’t say much about the climax, but the revisionist lens Tarantino tells this story through left me flat.

It wasn’t a complete waste of time, however. DiCaprio and Pitt each contribute strong performances and showed excellent chemistry with each other. Julia Butters, a ten-year-old actor who completely steals her scenes with DiCaprio, should win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars next year. Anything less would be a travesty, but knowing how short the Oscar nominators’ memories are I doubt she’ll even get mentioned. Timothy Olyphant is his usual silky smooth self. Luke Perry’s role seemed a bit abrupt, which makes me wonder if Tarantino had bigger plans for him before his premature death. I enjoyed seeing Maya Hawke, who has made a huge splash recently in Season 3 of the Netflix series Stranger Things. The use of Kurt Russell was little odd to me—he first shows up as Randy, a stunt coordinator with no love for Booth. Then suddenly, half way through the movie or more, he starts narrating it. I don’t recall any narration in the first half, unless I just ignored it. Mike Moh was a lot of fun as a cocky Bruce Lee. Tarantino regular Michael Madsen has a small cameo, but Tim Roth’s tiny role was cut, as were James Remar’s and James Marsden’s parts. I think the biggest disappointment I had with any character was in Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate. I know very little about Tate, and I know very little more after seeing this film. All Tarantino asks her to do is smile and look pretty, which comes as natural to Robbie as breathing, so that’s not much of a stretch. Frankly, Robbie did more actual acting in Warner Brothers’ super-disappointing super-villain flick Suicide Squad.

If you’re a diehard Tarantino fan, you’ll probably be able to overlook some of this film’s shortcomings, If you’re an average movie fan looking for something new to see this weekend, your mileage may vary. If Tarantino has never been your cup of tea, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood won’t change your mind. If you're a Trekkie, Tarantino's helming the next Star Trek film which might be a real Kobayashi Maru.


2.5 / 5.0