As is usually the case, the new Quentin Tarantino movie has been the cue for a lot of positive and negative comment.
Tarantino is famously a director with an auteur’s vision and particular style. Nearly all of his movies have, on some level, produced some kind of reaction and counter-reaction.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – his first movie after splitting from the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein – has followed into a similar pattern. With various comments about its portrayal of Bruce Lee, its handling of real life stories and its central female character, questions of being style over substance, and various other issues, it fits into that pattern of being the course for much for film buffs to discuss.
The bulk of the drama follows fading Westerns actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman-turned-chauffeur Cliff (Brad Pitt). The two of them are looking to find their way in a changing Hollywood landscape in 1969.
Having been the star of a long-running Western TV show, Dalton is struggling to feel comfortable in a lifestyle as a “bad guy of the week” for TV, and trying to avoid following his agent’s (Al Pacino) suggestion of moving to Italy to star in spaghetti Westerns.
Moving in next door is actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her largely-absent film director husband Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). Tate largely enjoys adventures in Hollywood, even going into see how the audience react to her own movie The Wrecking Crew.
While Rick lands a TV show pilot and struggles through his first scenes, culminating in an on-set breakdown, Cliff ends up picking up hitchhiking young girl Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). They end up at the seemingly abandoned Spahn Ranch, where a lot of similarly aged teenage hippies are squatting in former film and TV sets.
The arcs involving Tate and the dark side of the hippie ideal does theoretically make this into Tarantino’s attempt to do a story of the Manson Family’s murders – 50 years ago this month, no less. But this isn’t a historical reconstruction, and instead seems to use it as part of the film’s overall texture, with the film largely playing out as a love letter to 60s Americana culture.
Cosmetically, the film is delightful. Attempts to re-create the splendour of the 1960s are ten-a-penny but the vision here is excellent. It looks very handsome. Complimenting this is some delightful cinematography, particularly in scenes where DiCaprio’s character is filming the TV pilot.
The DiCaprio-Pitt double act is equally charming. A particular highlight is where the two in the living room having fun watching DiCaprio on TV in one of his “baddy of the week” cameos – photoshopped on Burt Reynolds, who had been due to play in this film before his death – but throughout, they work nicely as a compelling double act.
Much has been made on Robbie’s arc. By consensus, its a good performance of Tate – her surviving sister has praised her portrayal, for one – and the director’s rationale is one in good faith, but it feels like a strangely uninvolving plot thread when one considers her screen time and her billing. Though if nothing else, its an improvement than the derided Wolves at the Door or Haunting of Sharon Tate looked to be.
The controversial depiction of Lee is largely throwaway. It pretty much revolves around one scene with him and Pitt’s character, in a sequence where Pitt’s character is being heavily questioned. In all truth, if it wasn’t for the famous name its being lined up as a portrayal of, it might otherwise have not generated so much comment.
The spoilery stuff at the end is a curio, and one that divides opinion, but if nothing else proves why the film requires its 18 age rating. Certainly, it flows reasonably organically, even if the sudden use of narration when the film didn’t previously have it jars.
For the most part, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a slow moving film, with a lot of scenes that sprawl on beyond the length of time they perhaps should take. Stuff like this perhaps explains how this film tops the 2hr40 mark, when you could argue it could shave 15 minutes off.
On the whole, its a fairly messy adventure, but a very watchable one. With beautiful cinematography, good performances and a reasonably coherent overall narrative, enough works to ensure the film earns back the price. Some of it could hang better, or be handled better, but what’s around largely works out.