Review: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Image: Columbia Pictures Corporation

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie

There is a poster for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood in circulation in the UK on the side of a bus that represents it very well. It shows Margot Robbie’s head on its own, smaller, and on the other side of the poster to Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, poking out from the corner as if vying for just a moment in the spotlight. Robbie, star though she now is, and playing Sharon Tate in a film that has been discussed by many as a film about Tate’s death, is for the entirety of the film a fringe player, a supporting act to its mean storyline of DiCaprio and Pitt’s leading men. This is not always to the film’s detriment, with its main focus often proving a QT masterclass in style and diversion, but ultimately the writer-director’s priorities and decision-making hamper Hollywood from realising the greatness it sometimes promises.

The somewhat incidental plot is focussed around DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a former star who’s popularity is rapidly waning, and his former stuntman and now driver and general dogsbody Cliff Booth (Pitt), who happens to also be Rick’s closest, indeed only, friend. In Rick’s career, there is a delightful attention to detail on display here. The fake films and posters are created in loving detail, resulting in a rich, textured film made with more warmth than we might expect. The plot is intentionally meandering, almost playing like a series of vignettes. Whilst many of these sequences are individually excellent, there is little point to most of them, advancing neither plot nor character. This is, for the most part, not too bothersome; we are having too much fun with each sequence that we aren’t bothered about the whole.

Nevertheless, for a film that meanders down many, many side-roads, you would reasonably think that some of them might devote some attention to Sharon Tate, the film’s elephant in the room considering her true, widely-known fate. Yet the majority of Tate’s action in the film consists of her strutting and dancing with effortless cool. Margot Robbie does this very well, it must be said, but an actor of her talent deserves more.

It could be argued that she is not intended to be an equal player alongside DiCaprio and Pitt because it does not fit the narrative. The film is their story and Tate serves mostly as a symbol, representing the rising star in contrast to Rick Dalton’s fast-fading fame. That would make sense if the film were an intense character study of Dalton and his relationship with Cliff Booth, but it is not. Tarantino is too busy having fun with little episodes involving Bruce Lee or extended clips of Dalton’s performances. Besides, for much of the running time this is a Tarantino film in the classic sense, presenting us with a large ensemble of colourful characters and notable actors. There are brief turns from Lena Dunham, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, and Damian Lewis, among others.

What is so frustrating about Tate’s role in the film is that she has just enough solo scenes to suggest that she is more than a bit-part player, but does so little in them that she does not register as such. Instead of slotting into the gallery of famous faces, her appearances are jarring, always promising something meatier than they actually deliver. Robbie is excellent in a scene where Tate watches herself on the big screen, beaming as the audience laugh at her jokes and applaud her fighting. There is an innocence and purity to her happiness that provides a counterpoint to the dejected, worn-down Rick Daltons of Hollywood. This contrast is left at surface-level however, Tate getting no further characterisation beyond this point.

Much, quite reasonably, has been made of the lack of agency and voice given to the film’s sole ‘major’ female character. In what is a thorny issue, I would argue that a film’s quality and how progressive it is are not necessarily linked. Yet whether the Tate role is occupied by a woman or not, having such a long and meandering film that leaves one of its central characters so underserved is a mistake.

Hollywood’s other misuse of its characters is in failing to recognise the importance of Cliff Booth. Casting Brad Pitt was a masterstroke. Nonchalant and easy-going yet clearly a man with a lot of troubles, Booth is a failed stuntman with movie-star looks and movie-star charisma. He is an enigmatic and fascinating character, but Tarantino does not probe him enough; in spending more time on Dalton’s troubles than Booth’s, we barely scratch the surface of the man behind the facade.

There is a fantastic scene where Rick and Cliff watch the former’s appearance on FBI, bantering away as they do so. Their camaraderie pairs perfectly with the mundane conversations Tarantino has always been so excellent at writing. More scenes like this, with Rick and Cliff alone and relaxed, would not only have been a joy but would have deepened our understanding of their friendship and the film’s overall poignancy. To my mind, Cliff Booth is, or could be, the best thing in Hollywood, but I’m not sure Quentin Tarantino agrees.

With these quite fundamental issues I have raised with Tarantino’s work, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was not enjoyable. However, for the vast majority of the film I had a whale of a time. The filmmaking on display here is at times so deliriously entertaining and with such stylistic verve that is hard not to love it. The 60/70s soundtrack is predictably fantastic, combining with Robert Richardson’s warm-hued photography to enhance the stars’ already considerable swagger.

It is appropriate that a film with such focus on Hollywood stardom itself contains some of the film industry’s biggest names. The performances are superb all round, with Robbie doing a lot with a little and Pitt and DiCaprio mining all the humour they can from Tarantino’s script. Leo gets to do more acting, breaking down and throwing shit with great vigour, but it is the comic capabilities of the pair that really hit the mark. Here we have two of Hollywood’s biggest leading men having a ball with the absurdity of their own world, DiCaprio in particular mixing self-mockery with genuine pathos in Rick’s tantrums to great effect.

There are some stand-out sequences, too. Booth’s encounter with the Manson family at their base camp is unsettling and gripping in the extreme, whilst Dalton’s encounter with a child actor is surprisingly touching. The film’s closing scenes, an extended voiceover sequence, feel slightly tacked-on, but make for thrilling, hilarious, disturbing viewing nonetheless. It has a go-for-broke madness that has the ability to leave you shaken.

Sadly, for all its many strengths, the characterisation in Hollywood continually hampers it. This is not Tarantino in Pulp Fiction mode, dazzling us with non-linear narrative and an enticing rogues’ gallery. Instead, things appear to be more character-heavy, but with such a long film Tarantino does not always use his 161 minutes wisely.

I wonder what this review would have said if this was Tarantino’s first film. Something more positive probably. He has presented us with such highs of filmmaking exuberance and has been so influential in the pop culture zeitgeist that we perhaps judge him, and others like him, with entirely different expectations. When we scrutinise his films it is easy to forget that there is a quality to them that we take for granted. 

Some critics are proclaiming Hollywood to be a masterpiece; it is not, and Quentin Tarantino is not an infallible genius, but if this is to be his penultimate film, cinema will miss the energy, wit and flair of his filmmaking.

Andrew Young