Published on July 28th, 2019 | by Craig Silliphant0
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t perfect, but it is Tarantino’s best movie in years; and it’s a welcome new kind of Tarantino film.
With the rise of franchise filmmaking and superheroes taking over the multiplex, a new Tarantino movie is more of an event than ever for film lovers. But while I love Tarantino, his movies have been riddled with self-indulgent choices the last few years. It’s like he’s surrounded by yes people, like he’s never heard of the writing rule about killing your darlings.
Movies like Inglorious Basterds (which I do love) have some brilliant scenes that don’t always add up to a smoothly paced ride. I mean, the two-part Kill Bill is really one great movie. Some of the best scenes in Basterds cause a real drag on the big picture. Django is worse for this and harder to forgive because it’s not as good of a movie as Basterds. And Hateful Eight is a good movie buried in a three-hour exercise in sheer indulgence.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has these indulgences as well, but it’s woven in with a lot more care and maturity. Thinking back on the film and some of its almost Family Guy-style cutaways, I begin to wonder what some of them had to do with the story itself. Tarantino writes scenes that draw you in and make you hold your breath, but later on, as per a variation on Hitchcock’s Fridge Logic, you start to wonder what that scene had to do with anything, or why it had to be such a long drive down a strange path. That said, especially in Once Upon a Time, they do serve to create a world and the characters that inhabit it. It’s meandering, but likeable. Maybe it’s time for me to accept that this is just going to be his style, take it or leave it. And I really enjoyed the heck out of this movie.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play an actor and his stuntman, navigating Hollywood. DiCaprio’s character has been a big star, but his career is starting to circle the drain a bit. Pitt is his loyal stuntman, who has become more of his driver, handyman, and paid hetero-companion. Meanwhile, true history is unfolding, as DiCaprio’s neighbours, Roman Polanski and his bride Sharon Tate are heading towards their famous fate, with Tate and her friends as fodder for Charlie Manson’s family.
DiCaprio and Pitt are great and their relationship is really the centre of the film. It is sweet and loving, defying macho convention. Margo Robbie’s Sharon Tate is another star turn for her, proving that she’s much, much more than just the latest superhero movie Hollywood starlet. There was some criticism that her part was slimmer than the men, that she didn’t have many lines. While there’s merit for an argument and room for that point of view, I actually loved that Tate wanders through the movie, like a ghost that hasn’t realized she’s dead yet, heading towards her fate. It makes her all the more tragic.
There are some strange pieces that I want to consider again upon rewatch. Why do they spend so much time on the Great Escape cutaway? Sure it looks cool, but they really spend a lot of screen time making that little point. Why do they introduce Steve McQueen, Michelle Phillips, and Jay Sebring with supers, but then abandon that entirely? People like Mama Cass and Bruce Lee don’t get them. Why is a narrator introduced when they return from Italy, suddenly cramming a bunch of exposition in to fast-forward through a portion of the story? (Did a chunk of the film end up on the cutting room floor here?). Why fast-forward through part of the story when we spent so much time at the beginning focusing on little details that don’t matter as much? My wife commented that this stuff is sloppy, and while I can’t disagree with how it looks, he’s also Tarantino. I have to give him a bit of the benefit of the doubt. It works because he’s Tarantino and he says it works.
Anyway, the important thing is that he has created something different and wonderful here. While it has a pretty long run time at 2 hours and 41 minutes, I wasn’t bored once. Nor did I feel much of the usual drag that his self-indulgence inspires in the pacing. If anything, I could have watched more — followed them more closely through Italy, and even found out what happened after the credits rolled. (By the way, I don’t want to give away the ending, but I loved it. The violence was stunning. And a weird way, the ending itself was quite sweet and affecting. I’ve said too much already).
All these characters and relationships are indicative of a new kind of Tarantino film. Even though it deals with one of the most shocking crimes of the 20th century, the movie isn’t a pulpy Tarantino crime film at all. And even though it recreates Hollywood in the late 60s to amazing results, it’s not really about the era or the careers of these people either. It’s just about people. It’s about their doubts, their fears, their loves, their friendships, and their fates. While we’ve seen many of his movies about different people and their life and death struggles, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first time Tarantino has made a movie about life itself.