Review: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

A Quentin Tarantino film that feels nothing like one, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is very good, but would have benefited from sticking to its more successful, fictional elements than attempting to co-opt historical fact for entertainment.

In 1969 Hollywood, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggles with the idea that he might be on the way out, leaning heavily on stuntman, only friend and glorified personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) for support (of all kinds). At the same time, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) enjoys life at the top, all three unaware of growing tensions in Los Angeles (and the USA) at large.

This is the least Tarantino-y of all his films because there is very little outrageous, sassy dialogue or uncomfortable depictions of racism and sexism. Surprisingly, there’s far more emotional depth and slow burning tension – Tarantino isn’t just what we expect of him based on other films, was the lesson I learned here.

There’s little I can criticise about his direction, because as always he knows how to hold scenes and make dialogue (his script or fake movie scripts) hold your attention. In fact he does even better with scenes of real emotion and tension, far removed from his usual attempts.

My real issue is with his insistence (less understandably than in Inglourious Basterds) that fictional elements intersect with fact. Everyone watched Inglourious Basterds and enjoyed the trangressive nature of how he “changes” history, but here his decision to include Sharon Tate – brutally murdered by Charles Manson’s “Family” – as a main character (alongside two fictional ones) felt off.

While her inclusion was approved by her family, and many won’t have an issue with it,  it felt strange to me – crowbarred in, to reinforce the idea that “I’m so in love with old Hollywood that I’m gonna include a real person – not just anyone, but an actress famously slaughtered in a notorious crime”. It smacks of Tarantino thinking he can do what he wants because this is a love letter to cinema – but it felt wrong, particularly given how pitifully little Margot Robbie has to do beyond a beaming impersonation.

Where the film works, flies and could have been incredible if focused on is the double act between DiCaprio and Pitt. Tarantino’s faults can often be papered over by inspired casting, excellent character interplay and snappy dialogue, and he’s put together two A* list actors who work brilliantly together here as a double act.

Focusing on them might have meant proceedings were a little shorter – at three hours (more or less), this feels long. Incidentally, you can tell where the script hit an impasse when both a time jump and some unnecessary (but very Tarantino) narration takes up the slack. He wrote most of a fantastic film, but nobody told him to edit it down, remove some characters and events, or trust the audience to understand what’s going on.

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When the film focuses on Rick and Cliff, their fictional relationship (inspired by real individuals) and stories are great. It’s a really different focus for Tarantino but he makes the characters work, and as long as the film focuses on them (and doesn’t go “oh look, here’s an actor playing a real life actor! Look, look!”), it works perfectly as a fable of that era of Hollywood, just before the old system crumbled and more independent cinema came along ahead of the blockbuster wave.

This movie looks great and of its time, with Robert Richardson’s lighting evoking sun kissed LA streets, 60s house party chic and desolate desert vistas, while period costumes are spot on. Fred Raskin’s editing is surprisingly calm and considered for a Tarantino movie, with no swooping reaction pans or “swooshes” – until the end anyway, where what transpires means everything steps up a notch.

Musically it’s stuffed with songs from the time, a lot of which I wasn’t familiar with! There’s no score, and when music does appear it’s diegetic and non diegetic (sometimes in the scene, over a radio; or not in the scene, playing like a score just to us). Large parts have no music at all, which is unnerving and odd, especially given Tarantino usually fills films with tunes.

It’s the performances that make the difference, especially DiCaprio’s excellently layered, jaded actor, full of knowing self mockery. Dalton is washed up, alcoholic and paranoid  his best days are behind him, DiCaprio making his arrogant path so enjoyable that the film is less interesting without it (not to mention the meta levels that this works on when you consider how A-list and acclaimed DiCaprio is).

Some of his funniest and most emotional work comes in a western movie, DiCaprio at turns egotistical, humbled, upset, infuriated and ecstatic. In turn, his easy rapport with Pitt gives every shared scene that little bit extra, Pitt’s mix of stoic, ever so sinister and unruffled cool a great comedic counterpart to Rick’s burnt out, self critical worrier.

Pitt’s aptitude with comedy isn’t always shown onscreen, but Tarantino gets that out of him again, while an undercurrent of tension via impassive brooding gives everything an unpredictable edge. I feel very sorry for Margot Robbie, who really shouldn’t be playing Sharon Tate. Invent a facsimile character and it would give her much more to work with and stand out, but instead this is an unblemished, rose tinted imitation that wastes her talents. She’s playing a memory and Tarantino’s idealisation of Tate.

An absolute goldmine of heavyweight, well known actors make up the rest of the sprawling cast, including Al Pacino’s chatty agent; Kurt Russell’s flinty stunt coordinator (and narrator); and Margaret Qualley’s uninhibited hippy making impacts. Cameos from Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis (as Steve McQueen) and Mike Moh (in an odd Bruce Lee appearance) are notable, as are those at a mysterious ranch.

There, in the most tense and disturbing scenes, there’s good work from Qualley, Lena Dunham (!) and Dakota Fanning (!!) as acolytes of a certain cult leader (played ghoulishly by Damon Herriman in one pivotal scene), while Bruce Dern’s ornery, manipulated ranch owner provides a notably hilarious Tarantinoesque twist on a stereotype.

I really did enjoy most of this film, and would happily watch more DiCaprio and Pitt together. Honestly though, this could have been one of Tarantino’s best had he not indulged in more historical revisionism. Sometimes it’s best to stick to what you can control and what you’re good at, than forcing truth and fiction together for fun.

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