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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood •••

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2019


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, shall we go back a half-century and see what Hollywood was like in 1969?

If you don’t mind looking through the rose-colored lenses of Quentin Tarantino’s love affair with that era, then no – let’s recap a modern fairy tale.

The year is 1969 and we’re in Hollywood, California. We meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), star of a TV show called Bounty Law. Dalton’s career has stalled and he’s hoping that his neighbors, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and big-time movie director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) , can boost his career by casting Dalton in his next film. Dalton’s best friend is a stunt-man named Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is now paid to drive Dalton all around town.

Booth drives Dalton around town because Dalton has lost his driver’s license due to DUI. While Dalton is working on the set of the pilot for “Lancer,” Booth gives a ride to hippy-girl Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who lives at the Spahn Movie Ranch with a horde of hippies led by failed musician Charles Manson. Now the stage is set and we’re on our way to an alternate history of the events of August 9th, 1969.

Greg, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a strange, meandering work of art. It is a disjointed pastel of scenes searching for coherence and meaning. Some of these scenes are dull, some are bizarre, and some are fascinating, but in no way do they hang together to tell an interesting or unified story. There are some standout performances, most notably by Brad Pitt, whose character of Cliff Booth is the one person who held my attention. There is also a smattering of comedic moments, as when the Manson family’s ridiculous “lie” about George Spahn taking a nap somehow turns out to be true. But overall this film is a colossal disappointment given the vast talent of the cast and director.

I’m wondering what’s happened to Quentin Tarantino, and I’ll advance two hypotheses. One hypothesis, which I’m willing to consider, is that I need to watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a second time to begin appreciating its “genius”. The reason I entertain this possibility is because after first viewing Pulp Fiction I was less than impressed. Now after ten viewings I believe PF is one of the finest films of all-time. So this hypothesis centers on there being nothing wrong with Tarantino and everything wrong with my ability to recognize brilliance at first sight.

My second hypothesis is that Tarantino is suffering through a mid-career malaise that has affected his good judgment about scene length and scene quality, not to mention movie coherence and movie length. Does this story really need 2-hours and 45 minutes to be told? And by the way – what is the “story” about? Is it about a second-rate actor conquering his insecurity? Is it about his stunt man’s ability to out-badass the Manson family? Is it about an alternate timeline offering far more entertainment value than the true timeline? Pulp Fiction also boasted multiple threads but they were weaved into an astounding tapestry. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a tapestry all right, but not “astounding”, unless we emphasize the “ass” in astounding.

I do give props to the film for its scarily accurate portrayal of 1969 Los Angeles. I lived in the City of Angels at that time, in Woodland Hills, just a few miles from both the Spahn ranch and the sight of the grisly murders. Tarantino absolutely nails the visuals, from background ads (e.g., George Putnam’s 10pm News) to the L.A. airport’s multicolored corridors from yesteryear. The film’s re-creation of the scene of the crime at the Polanski’s residence – its road, driveway, and gate – is near perfection. I’m not sure why Tarantino altered the ending to give us a dark-comedic thwarting of Manson’s plan, but I’m so very relieved that he did. None of us ever needs to see the actual horrors of that night on the big screen.

I think I know what this film is about. Dalton is at a crossroads in his career. He’s done his best work and he’s having a mid-life crisis. I think Tarantino may be reflecting his own experiences and doubts about his future onto the big screen. I actually thought this was Tarantino’s own “M. Knight Shamalan” moment. That moment when an artist is telling stories he is interested in, despite his audience’s desire to see it.

You’re absolutely right about the quality of the filmmaking here, Scott. There are great CGI moments that put DiCaprio into The Great Escape, Robbie into The Wrecking Crew and DiCaprio, again, into an episode of The FBI. The attention to detail (I saw a billboard ad for the movie Candy in the background) is literally beyond belief.

This film reminded me in many ways of the Capote movie In Cold Blood. The film is Hitchcockian in its build-up to the big moment when the Manson family would be about to kill Sharon Tate and her friends. Instead, they go after Dalton and Booth – who handily beat the living shit out the three and set one on fire. In my humble opinion, this is Tarantino having a wish fulfillment of “If only I had been there, I would have shown those guys.” It creates a modern fairy tale of what could have been.

This is also quite widely accepted as the moment the love-in that the was the 1960s ended. As a child of the 1970s, I’ve always been quite perplexed about how these events were so important. These four entitled B-listers were killed by a group of nobodies. It made national headlines and has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Perhaps the Hollywood elite finally realized they were as human as the rest of us.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood aspires to be a major cinematic event but ends up consisting of a loosely connected collage of scenes that are often too long and/or unnecessary. There are some redeeming qualities to this movie that should be mentioned, such as the performances from the star-studded cast, especially Brad Pitt. The film does have a tension that builds toward a looming dread of the murderous rampage that we know must come, and sure enough it comes although in the form of a dark-comedic re-imagining from Tarantino. This movie had potential but, like an undercooked omelet, it just doesn’t hold together. I give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a mere 2 Reels out of 5.

There really is no hero story here to speak of. Yes, there are protagonists, most notably Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. They live their lives and somehow save themselves from the Manson family’s murderous intentions. But I don’t see them coming out of their ordeal transformed in any meaningful way, with the possible except that Dalton now has an “in” with the Polanski family. I guess it pays to know how to incinerate someone with a flamethrower. I give the heroes a rating of 2 Hero points out of 5.

If there is a “message” to be gleaned from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it isn’t easily apparent. I doubt that Tarantino had some grand lesson to be learned, as his goal in filmmaking usually focuses on artistry, irony, and style. At film’s end, our hero Rick Dalton finally gets accepted into Hollywood’s inner circle, but I hardly think Tarantino is telling us that if you work hard, stay patient, and learn flamethrower skills, you’ll succeed in your profession. I give the message 2 small Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

I thoroughly enjoyed myself in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and I think both the craftsmanship and performances were outstanding. However, I believe this is a love letter to Hollywood about a time that’s passed. As so often happens when an artist transcends his audience, the work becomes more about the work itself and not entertaining an audience. I believe this film will sweep the Oscars next year, very much for its craft, but also because it will resonate with its intended audience – the Hollywood elite. Still, I was transported back in history through Tarantino’s magical time machine and had a good time. I’ll award 4 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this buddy story are Dalton and Booth. There’s not much of an arc for either of them. They are cardboard cutouts of actors of that time. And since the film ends without tying up all the loose ends, we really don’t know what their arc is. This film really isn’t about Dalton and Booth, but rather the times in which they “lived.” Perhaps, then, the hero truly is Hollywood and how 1969 was a pivotal time and transition from innocence to adulthood. I give the hero’s journey just 2 Heroes.

There’s no coherent message here. This is mere wish fulfillment for Tarantino and we’re along for the ride. I’ll squeeze out 1 Message point for Once upon a time in Hollywood.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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