Film Reviews

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Quentin Tarantino

Rating - 5/10

Let's start with the good before I get to the bad and the ugly. Quentin Tarantino's latest art-schlocker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, takes us on a tour of late 60s Los Angeles, complete with those cute old Taco Bells, empty freeways, Chatsworth movie lots, and even a triumvirate of classic L.A. eateries: Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote, and Casa Vega. We also hob-nob with a handful of stars from that era, the most notable being a hammy Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and a spot-on doppelganger of Steve McQueen played by Damian Lewis (if he only could approximate McQueen's voice the impersonation would have been uncanny). Clothing evokes the era as well, from Roman Polanski's (Rafal Zawierucha) foppish “Prince of Parties” look, to a bevy of Bohemian hippies, to Brad Pitt's – ahem, I mean Cliff Booth's inevitably iconic yellow Hawaiian shirt over a Champion auto parts tee; I think my dad wore the same getup.

Speaking of Brad Pitt, he plays a stuntman who goes by the handle Cliff Booth, but seriously, Pitt basically plays an idealized version of himself. That said, Pitt's swagger and charm is more than enough to carry his scenes, especially when he's sharing the screen with the film's best actor, a dog named Brandy (played with charm and charisma by Sayuri). The rest of the cast pass muster. Leonardo DiCaprio gets an A- for finding humor in the insecurities of a washed-up actor (Rick Dalton) relegated to villainous roles on Western TV pilots. Bruce Dern growls to his cranky strengths in a brief, but engaging scene. Margot Robbie is a passable Sharon Tate, if we're to believe that the real Tate was a vacuous, walking mannequin. And somehow, Tarantino has cast Al Pacino in one of the most forgettable roles of his career, the kind of Hollywood manager usually played by someone innocuous and grandfatherly, like Judd Hirsch.

Now for the bad. All of the above actors must wander through a story as thin as cellophane that takes place over three days (spread across six months), but goes approximately nowhere over nearly three hours of screen time. The plot in a nutshell: DiCaprio's Rick Dalton finds himself in a career crisis, no longer wanted in starring roles. Dalton must come to grips with his failings, which include alcoholism, insecurity, and a quasi-sputtering vocal tic. Meanwhile, his stunt double and best pal – I'm calling him Brad Pitt from now on – provides stability via pep talks and a listening ear. It's like that dream you have where Brad Pitt is your best friend. The two separate while Dalton films his scenes, giving Brad Pitt a chance to do chores with his shirt off, drive around Hollywood, and have a run-in with a clan of menacing hippies (spoken of derogatively throughout the film). These hippies happen to be the one and only Spahn Ranch collective who followed Charles Manson, a fact you'll only pick up if you know Manson's history. I wonder how much of this was lost on theater-goers? If you know your famous murders, you'll bristle when you see that Sharon Tate lives next door to Rick Dalton. What a coincidence. That's the whole plot, yet somehow the film runs out of time to cover everything about these stories, and uses voice over for about fifteen minutes near the end of the film to fill in plot holes.

But a meandering story is just the beginning of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's ills. The film's dialogue, for one, lacks Tarantino's usual flair for knotty wordplay. In fact, one of the funnier lines from the film could well have been one of 100 jokes in any episode of The Office. Dialogue was so mundane and pointless, and even stilted, that as I sat in the theater I not only wanted to wander to the concession stand, but began longing for the way a movie like Boogie Nights (or The Hateful Eight for that matter) can make us disappear into an era and really live there for a few hours. In spite of a huge budget and an art and makeup department of over 80 people (Reservoir Dogs, by comparison, had 14), I never felt immersed in Tarantino's world. And I know you won't believe this, but even the music was bland. At one point a hippy rides a horse through sagebrush accompanied by guitar strumming that sounded like music from a random SoundCloud page.

Most mind-numbing of all were the numerous times Tarantino subjects us to movies and TV shows within his movie. Yes, we were forced to watch what characters were watching, shows and films that Tarantino undoubtedly has a soft spot for (Mannix and The Wrecking Crew for example), media that Tarantino clearly appreciates for quaint or cheesy qualities. But, my god, watching boring films and shows within an already loquacious film is even more tedious than it sounds.

Because the plot I just mentioned would only fill a half-hour of film, Tarantino stuffs his turkey with his usual asides, anecdotes, backstories, and in one case an agonizingly long trio of scenes from a TV Western DiCaprio's character is shooting, which provides several of the many (and pointless) meta-moments in the film. Another is when Tarantino uses a Nazi scene to nod to his own Inglourious Basterds. But the biggest meta-crime of the film was Tarantino's trolling of the audience with a couple of gratuitous barefoot shots, calloused and dirt-crusted, as if to say, “I know what you're thinking, I have a foot fetish. Wink-wink.”

And that's just the beginning of the ugly. Tarantino's 60s and 70s fetishes, his love for trash-cinema, and his male gaze on rad dudes like Pitt, Dern, Timothy Olyphant, and, of course, Kurt Russell are on display as usual. But Tarantino's ultimate hallmark, the inclusion of gratuitous violence as a way of honoring exploitation cinema is where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes a problematic turn. Without going into the circumstances of the violence because to do so would ruin the singular surprise the film has to offer and spoil one of the few memorable scenes in the three-hour film, I'll say that Tarantino has equaled his most gruesome moments. In a sequence of violence porn that seems to go on forever, Tarantino portrays hideous acts of violence against teen-aged girls with such manipulative sleight of hand that much of the ArcLight's audience cheered. Perhaps the audience accepted the depravity because it was the only thing not boring about the film. More likely, Tarantino's reputation as a genius auteur is so solidified in people's minds that they preordain everything in his films as artful, and therefore have permission to laugh and cheer at blood-curdling vengeance no matter how appalling. I heard this kind of exchange in the lobby afterward: “Tarantino is so rad. Pulp Fiction amirite? So cool. Oh man, that scene was so fucked up. Har, har.”

Also ugly were the audience's guffaws at racist comments and reductive portrayals, such as the near caricature of Bruce Lee, or a pair of racist lines dropped about Latinos, or the disparaging of hippies, characters who bear many traits of 2nd wave feminists. These ugly points of view have a place in film, but to have a revered director play them for laughs is dangerous. Hey, if Tarantino gets a pass for using the n-word, then why shouldn't we laugh at these other expressions, calling them a “nod to exploitation flicks,” that way we can act out our own racist and barbaric impulses by proxy?

Quentin Tarantino's ninth film (his self-aggrandizing sub-title) offers so little in the way of cinematic entertainment, that its best trait is that it provides an extended example of what Tarantino does wrong, giving us a clean slate to reevaluate his oeuvre without being blinded by Tarantino's usual flair for atemporal story-telling, captivating characters, and stories that offer wall-to-wall surprises. This, instead, is Tarantino at his basest, a fanboy reveling in his fetishes, and to my disappointment, a dishonor to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time... films.