Movie Review – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature (by his count) feels a lot like his previous features. Unfortunately, it feels derivative of a lot of his last films. It’s very much a homage to a particular form of cinema. That form includes violent and masculine expressions, such as martial arts films and westerns. It’s also about the tropes therein. It’s about friendship, in particular unlikely friendships between certain people who perhaps come from polar opposite backgrounds or stations in life. It’s also about revisionist history, which is a theme and tactic he’s employed, going back to his sixth feature, Inglourious Basterds (2009).
That Oscar-winning flick first presented Tarantino’s vision of revisionist history. In that film, he rewrites how Adolf Hitler was killed and how World War II was ended. Tarantino’s narrative basically was a revenge fantasy that imagines the Holocaust being prevented. It imagines the slaughter of millions of Jews potentially being stopped. Tarantino’s alternate timelines continue in Django Unchained (2012), which imagines a black man enacting revenge against a slave-owner in the Antebellum days. The scope in Django Unchained wasn’t as large as stopping the Holocaust. It’s not as if the Emancipation Proclamation came early necessarily, but it was simplified to the freeing of a couple of slaves on one plantation.
This film also simplifies things and doesn’t try to prevent some great or grandiose tragedy. It’s not as if he tries to stop the massacre at the University of Texas in 1966 or the Kent State Shootings in 1970. He doesn’t try to stop an infamous serial killer like the Boston Strangler, the Zodiac Killer, the Skid Row Slasher, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer. Arguably, he does depict one, particular serial killer, namely Charles Manson, but the focus of the film isn’t about stopping him. Manson is a rather unique serial killer in that he was a cult leader who inspired other people to commit murders. This film focuses on some of Manson’s followers or “Manson’s family” who infamously murdered a well-known group in Hollywood.
Tarantino isn’t concerned about understanding Manson’s family in any deep or fundamental way. It’s also different from his previous revisionist films and a more hollow effort because it’s not as fulfilling a revenge fantasy, if one isn’t aware of the Manson murders in real life. Inglorious Basterds takes place after World War II has started and presumably after Jews had started being killed. Therefore, the crimes have already occurred and within the narrative, Tarantino is taking retribution. Django Unchained takes place after slavery has become entrenched in the United States. That crime has already occurred within the narrative. Here, within the narrative, the crime in question hasn’t really occurred.
Margot Robbie (I, Tonya and The Wolf of Wall Street) plays Sharon Tate, the actress who was famously married to director Roman Polanski with whom she lived on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills. On the night of August 8, 1969, the Manson family invaded her home. She was pregnant and had several friends visiting. Her husband was away in Europe. Five people were ultimately murdered, including Tate and her unborn child. If a person didn’t know this or cared about it, this film does little to make you know or care. Yet, this is the crime that Tarantino wants to prevent.
Unlike the Nazis in Inglorious Basterds or the slave-owning racists in Django Unchained, the Manson family hadn’t committed any crimes prior to the Tate murders. There were murders that occurred after Tate’s home invasion, but this film punishes the characters for something they were going to do. It’s a historical fiction equivalent of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). However, Tarantino doesn’t learn the lesson that is at the ending of Minority Report. Essentially, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime or lack thereof. It’s not to say that addressing the fact that someone was intending to commit a crime isn’t important. Just because someone wasn’t successful in a crime doesn’t make the attempt not illegal, but exacting such brutal revenge for something that doesn’t happen is a bit much.
Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Eleven and Inglorious Basterds) co-stars as Cliff Booth, a stuntman who himself has been accused of committing murder. We never learn if he actually committed the murder or not, but if so, there’s not much that distinguishes him from the Manson family, except that he’d rather work in Hollywood and in mainstream culture, as opposed to the Manson family who is into counterculture and the Hippie movement. He’s obviously way older than the Manson family, which consists mainly of teenage girls. Instead of being an active stuntman, he works as a driver and handy-man to an actor who’s also aging out of the system.
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street and Django Unchained) stars as Rick Dalton, the aforementioned aging actor who employs Cliff. He thinks he’s a has-been and that he’s not the big star he used to be. He’s reduced to doing guest spots on genre TV shows. He has a bad drinking and smoking habit. He also worries that his acting talent might not be what it was. The majority of the film is watching Rick deal with this rather lame, existential crisis. Through which, Tarantino gets to comment on Hollywood and the figures therein that he likes.
DiCaprio and Pitt are engaging screen presences, and Tarantino gives them several scenes to be together and show what kind of friendship or relationship they had. However, for large chunks of the film, it’s as if they are in two separate films. DiCaprio is in this slight, Hollywood exposé and Pitt is in this almost, crime thriller that becomes itself a kind of spoof or parody. They both dovetail in this black comedy that is Taratino’s preferred tone that seems even more over-the-top in terms of its unnecessary nature than Tarantino has ever done before.
There are certain criticisms though that are unavoidable. Despite being the impetus, Robbie’s character of Sharon could have been completely excised from this narrative and it wouldn’t have mattered to the plot at all. The majority of the information that we get about her comes from narration or a male character at the Playboy Mansion. Yet, her presence feels tangential to this plot at best or rather superfluous.
Rated R for language, some graphic violence, drug use and sexual references.
Running Time: 2 hr. and 41 mins.