Wow…it’s been a while! I am back from my unofficial year-long writing hiatus. To be honest, I just wasn’t motivated to write about the movies I saw in theaters over the past year. I never would have guessed that a Quentin Tarantino film would be the one to revive my passion for review writing.
I’m not going to lie, my anticipation to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was not high in weeks prior to the film’s release. Leonardo DiCaprio is my favorite actor, but I am not the biggest fan of Tarantino. I’ve seen several of his films, and I dislike his use of extreme violence and racially-charged language. However, the cast and premise of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood caught my attention. I love portrayals of retro Hollywood and stories with a historical twist. That being said, I purposefully did not do much research before going to see it.*
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. Rick Dalton is a fading television western star, and Cliff Booth is his best friend and stunt double. The film follows this fictitious storyline while somewhat depicting the real events involving Sharon Tate and the Manson murders. But, in classic Tarantino fashion, it lacks a defined narrative. There is no three-act structure and no overarching conflict. Because of this, I think Tarantino risks losing many audience members to boredom. The majority of the film focuses on depicting the daily life of these stars in the late 1960s. The colors, wardrobes, and sets are incredibly nostalgic and visually stunning. Great acting performances, particularly by DiCaprio, keep the audience hanging on until the latter third of the film, when action involving the plot finally kicks in. I have seen it twice now, and my reactions differed. I loved it the first time, but naturally noticed many flaws after the second viewing.
Before I start the review, I thought I’d share something pretty cool. One of Robbie’s scenes was shot in Westwood where she attends a screening of The Wrecking Crew, which Tate starred in. Most of the scene takes place inside the historic Regency Bruin Theater, which is where I saw the film on opening night! It was surreal to watch the scene unfold in the very theater I was watching in. The picture on the right is the current marquee outside the theater. Anyways, back to my review…
*Light spoilers, don’t read further if you haven’t seen the film!*
Without a doubt, DiCaprio’s performance steals the show. I think he carries the film. I definitely would not have been as invested in the story had the performance not been one of his bests. Brad Pitt is good as his sidekick, but some of the lines he delivers come off awkwardly. I think we can attribute that to the odd nature of his character and weak screenwriting. DiCaprio and Pitt really do work well together, and I hope we get to see future collaborations. Margot Robbie does not have many lines; she is primarily there to present Tate’s persona and beauty. It was nice to see appearances by legends like Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, and Kurt Russell. Overall, the acting in the film is solid and does not falter.
Most of the criticisms towards Once Upon a Time in Hollywood target Tarantino’s directorial decisions. The film does have its absurd moments, but I think he intentionally exaggerates for entertainment. It does pay off, because I laughed out loud with the rest of the audience several times during the opening night screening. Like I said previously, there is no established conflict for a good portion of the film. As a result, several scenes meander with no clear purpose. I didn’t mind this, for the most part, because the good scenes are really good. Some of the drawn-out scenes with Tate, particularly in Westwood, could have been trimmed. If the goal was to create parallel narratives between Tate’s life and the duo of Dalton/Booth, I think Tarantino fails. She comes off as a background character who lacks a substantial storyline. There are some moments of sloppy editing, but being familiar with Tarantino’s style, it was difficult to know whether or not those imperfections were intentional. Critiquing the noticeable “flaws” in this film is challenging because they obviously stem from Tarantino’s unique vision. The film is not bad because of his choices. The key filmmaking elements of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, such as the acting and cinematography, are excellent. It’s in the little things, like unusual pacing and editing, where viewers may find fault. However, I have found that what some may describe as a mistake will not resonate with all viewers. Therefore, it is difficult to refer to his unconventional directorial choices as “flaws.”
I genuinely did admire Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I say that with hesitation because the film is abnormal. It has taken some serious reflection to pinpoint exactly what I liked about it. I think the strong acting performances, homage to an old era, and pure entertainment value of the film makes it an enjoyable watch. Understandably, the “day-in-the-life” nature of it will leave some viewers wondering what the point of it is. Everyone will have a different experience and reaction. I think you have to take it for what it is and leave the heavy analysis at the door. Tarantino crafted a fairytale to indulge in and express his love for Hollywood in the late 1960s.
Comment your opinions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood below!
*Having an idea of the circumstances surrounding Sharon Tate and the Manson family will make the film more meaningful.
Rated R for language and violence, although it’s not quite as violent as Tarantino’s other films.