Review: Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood

SPOILERS AHEAD

I’m back! I know I haven’t posted for a while, but I’ve been very swamped and I’ve started a new job so I’m going have to try harder to balance everything and try to get some more consistent posts out there to you guys! 

My return, however, is not the momentous occasion I wanted it to be, because I’m reviewing Tarantino’s ninth feature film, and I’m very much in the minority in saying not only did I not like it, I borderline hated it. 

Yes, you read that correctly. A person did not like Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. I say this facetiously because there has been unanimous praise for this movie everywhere you can possibly turn. From fans, critics, and Oscar voters who were supposedly turned away from the screening due to maximum capacity being reached. They showed up in droves and with good reason. A Tarantino feature is a big cinematic event, and this particular one brought back Leonardo DiCaprio in his first film role in 4 years, since his Oscar-winning turn in The Revenant (everyone go watch Steve Jobs instead). Starring alongside DiCaprio are Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, who bring such different energies to the film that it’s hard to believe you’re watching the same movie. But we’ll get into that. 

Featuring in the ensemble cast are Margaret Qualley, Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, the late Luke Perry, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Kurt Russell, among many others. There is some absolutely wild talent going on here, and it’s definitely too much for Tarantino to control. It’s a similar situation with The Post, where truly brilliant actors didn’t get enough time to shine. The difference with Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is that Tarantino pads out his character roster so much that there’s not enough time to focus on everything that’s going on. 

And that’s just one of my major problems with this movie. 

The runtime has no business being 161 minutes. I’m not saying that most of the movie is simply shots of Brad Pitt driving or Tarantino’s usual obsession with feet, but I am saying that both the script and the edit needed at least another refinement. Actually, I have a lot more problems with the script than the actual filmmaking, which is actually quite good in some places. Tarantino is good with the camera and Robert Richardson knows how to frame a shot. There’s no denying that. But I think Tarantino here, on many occasions, threatens to lose himself in his own dreamworld and, at least in my opinion, doesn’t have the bold, unabashed, artistry for that kind of story like some of his peers. Some short sequences do absolutely nothing to the story or the characters, and they don’t even look remarkably good. There’s a few moments where the camera will be lingering on Rick and Cliff (DiCaprio and Pitt) doing absolutely nothing and then just cut away to Margot Robbie spinning across the road. There’s no sequence to the edit, and it’s so haphazard that paying attention becomes an almost impossible feat. 

So now onto the script. I’ve always had a joke with myself that Tarantino was just a writer who couldn’t find anyone who wanted to direct his films, but I can’t even say that much here. The script is bad. It’s just bad. I do not and will not understand the sheer amount of praise his writing is getting. I think the characters are flat, mostly uninteresting, and their dialogue is so unbelievably cartoonish that they lose any semblance of their humanity right off the bat. This isn’t an unusual occurrence in Tarantino features, where the characters are so bizarrely scripted that making a connection to any of them is not an easy thing to achieve. In a film, I shouldn’t have to try to find humanity in someone myself, the actors and the writing should be delivering that to me. By its very construction, I should have been losing myself in the facsimile of Hollywood that Tarantino had created, not rolling my eyes every time a character said something in such a way that it’s hard to take them seriously. And maybe Tarantino is making a point about Hollywood, and about blurring the lines between life and art, but maybe it’s just bad writing. 

Let’s talk about the performances. I know there’s going to be a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding three of these performances (DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie) but I honestly wouldn’t nominate any of them. DiCaprio was good as he always is, but he still does his thing where he completely overacts and I can always tell that it’s just him acting. It takes a while for his character to properly adjust to the story, and he does some good stuff in the second act, but I’m just not on board with his performance really. If Robbie was given more to do, perhaps I’d have reasons to want to nominate her, but her screen time was quite limited and she barely got anything to do. There was no range, but she did leave an impression. However, unlike scene-stealing wonders of recent memory (Naomie Harris in Moonlight, Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name) she doesn’t have a profound impact on the audience or many of the other characters.  The closest I’d come is probably Brad Pitt but I think he was pretty one-note in a lot of places that probably comes down to “Character reasons” but that just highlights bad character writing, as mentioned before. Though Pitt does have some pretty great moments in the third-act that I quite enjoyed. The supporting players do their job, notably Margaret Qualley, the precociously brilliant Julia Butters, and a surprisingly manic performance from Mikey Madison, who has roughly ten seconds of pure genius in the third-act that I loved and deserves a shout-out. But that’s about it. Olyphant, Pacino, and the others do their jobs well enough, but nothing too amazing. 

And I think Tarantino wants so desperately to showcase Margaret Qualley’s feet that he forgets about what great opportunities he has. Either make the most of your actors, or cut their characters completely. Some could have absolutely been cut and made no difference to the film. The film spends a lot of time playing out Rick Dalton’s scenes, and while that had the opportunity to be a clever gimmick, Tarantino squeezes all the life of out it until it becomes tedious and repetitive. It happens too many times, for way too long, and doesn’t really add anything to the story apart from highlighting that Rick is actually a good actor, which we could’ve gleaned another way. You don’t need to show us 1000 times, Quentin, we get it!

And it wouldn’t be 2019 if I didn’t have a social justice issue to waffle on about, but it’s one that I think is going to irritate me as long as it keeps happening, which probably means forever. Tarantino’s women in this movie are so incredibly hollow, not one of them has an ounce of personality. Sharon Tate and Trudi Fraser aside, they’re all devoid of real depth. A lot of them don’t even have proper names. Margaret Qualley is literally called “Pussycat” and yes there is a super-masculine joke made about that. Ha ha ha yes let’s laugh at the obvious joke and bow down to QT who made no points with this movie. The women in this film are used as motivation or encouragement for the men, they have little agency and, yes there’s a community of women living together but they’re soulless, so it barely counts. And sure, Sharon and Pussycat share a car and hug each other (hello, Bechdel Test requirements) but we see nothing of their conversation, it rather just skips to the end and expects us to fill in the blanks. 

And I’m getting really tired of male emotion being played on for laughs. Every time Rick Dalton cries or breaks down, it’s supposed to be comedic – there’s perhaps one moment where it wasn’t, and my audience still laughed anyway. As much as Tarantino gets a lot of heat for writing women badly (which he does), he also doesn’t really know how to write real men and every character of his in this film comes across as painfully cartoonish because his writing is just not good in this movie. I don’t think I’ve seen a Tarantino man who feels like a real person. They’re all dripping with machismo and their emotions are used for sport. Men cry now, Quentin, it’s 2019! 

While at a lot of movies that focus on Hollywood try to create a either commentary on the issues that pervade it, or create a pastiche that hark back to the Golden Age, Tarantino merely uses it as an excuse for things to happen. Sure, Rick is an actor, and his entire story arc is based on that one fact, but what is it really saying? I feel like Tarantino tried to make a commentary about masculinity or something within these characters, but it comes off as so ironic that it’s hard to look into it as anything other than what it is at surface level. 

I feel like I’ve been complaining through this entire review, so I want to leave off with some positives. The soundtrack is genuinely great (apart from one choice of cut that infuriated me because a GREAT song was about to kick in and Tarantino CUTS AWAY from it), and there are some comedic moments throughout, albeit not enough to satiate a two-and-a-half hour runtime. As I’ve mentioned, some of the shots and camera movements are quite impressive. It’s always nice to see Margaret Qualley, and Brad Pitt is looking super good for his age. 

Is that…it? 

It genuinely might be. The film is so long that I can barely remember most of it and I only saw it last night. Goes to show how much it grabbed my attention. I’ll just stick with Inglorious Basterds.

I know most of you probably loved it, even so I’d love to discuss it with you! Tell me why you loved it, but even better if you agree with me…

Come talk to me on Twitter @Jamie_Carrick_ or follow me on Letterboxd: https://letterboxd.com/jamiecarrick/

4 thoughts on “Review: Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood”

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