In The Royal Tenenbaums, Eli Cash, played by Owen Wilson, writes a book and describes it thusly: “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.” It’s a great line. It kills me. And Owen Wilson passes it off so well.
Quentin Tarantino seems to have had a similar bug up his bum when he wrote Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood.
This review is a little…late, and while, yes, we were happily at the cottage when it came out, we have not been in a hurry to see it since we got home either, and in fact only saw it this past weekend because it was playing in the right time slot. Had Dora been playing at that time, I would have happily-ish seen that instead. The truth is, I’m kind of over Quentin Tarantino. I just don’t feel like racism is the price I want to pay to see his films. $12? Fine. Gratuitous use of the n-word? No thanks.
And while it’s impossible to say this film is racism-free (it isn’t), it’s not the film’s biggest problem. Sean and I just found it…boring.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a washed up TV star struggling to stay relevant. Dalton is a fictional amalgam of several stars of that era. He was a big star on a western television series a decade ago but now he’s lucky to guest star as the heavy on single, sporadic episodes. He drowns his sorrows in a pitcher of whiskey sours. His one time stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is now mostly his driver…and sometime handyman. He seems pretty content with his lot, his laid-back surfer dude persona disguising his continued ability to kick some serious ass.
Rick Dalton just happens to be living slightly beyond his means next to Roman Polanski in the Benedict Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Polanski is off filming a movie, leaving behind his 8 months pregnant wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and several houseguests…including the man who continued to love her despite her recent marriage to someone else, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).
Sharon Tate bops around town while Quentin Tarantino fixates on her legs…and eventually, her dirty feet. Margot Robbie is the picture of youth and health and vitality and promise. But other than as a symbol, she has little to do in the movie. She was few lines and little screen time. Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood is only tangentially about the Manson Family murders. It’s mostly Tarantino’s love letter to old Hollywood, and in that respect, it’s a good one. There’s lots of period cars and neon lights and references to old-timey movies and actors (Damian Lewis appears as Steve McQueen). But the movie acts mostly as a vehicle for DiCaprio and Pitt, indulging in lengthy scenes that are great testaments to their acting abilities…but don’t really serve a greater story. One flashback scene is so long and absorbing, Sean literally forgot it was a flashback scene, and then the story just spits us back out where we belong – it’s interesting, sure, but it corroborates a single, throw-away detail, which makes it totally irrelevant. This film is 161 minutes long…it didn’t exactly need any padding. I would normally suggest the story needed some good editing, but I think the real problem is that Tarantino isn’t sure exactly where the story is. He’s got a series of good ideas but no cohesive narrative into which he can plug them.
DiCaprio and Pitt are acting their little tushies off though. Pitt in particular. He steals every scene he’s in. When he, a 55 year old man, takes off his shirt, revealing an extremely fit physique, it earns whistles and applause in nearly every theatre it screens in. Arguably, old man abs are not exactly acting…but he backs them up charm and dynamism.
This puzzle had many attractive pieces. But some puzzles, when you finish them, you spackle them with glue to frame and hang on your wall. Others you merely break apart and put back into the box…where it will collect dust until you sell it in a yard sale, usually at least one piece short. Once Upon A Time In…Hollwood is the second kind of puzzle. It’s fine. It’s just not great.