Next Door to Fame: Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Reviewed By T.J. Tranchell
Quentin Tarantino has been a working filmmaker long enough that a generation of movie-goers have grown up with his work. It is then interesting to note that the second half of his directorial career has all been in the past.
His latest, the 161-minute long “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is set in 1969 and does capture that year in certain sections of Los Angeles perfectly. That perfection, however, is part of the problem. The entire film is gorgeous. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie are gorgeous, each inhabiting their own “Hollywoodness” to a T. Yet none of it feels like a stretch.
DiCaprio, as nearly washed-up Western actor Rick Dalton, deals with the downfall of a career and minor resurgence. Pitt, as stuntman Cliff Booth, gets to be the sidekick with a dark history. Robbie is Sharon Tate, up-and-coming actress and wife of director Roman Polanski who historically was murdered by followers of Charles Manson. The trio radiates stardom, particularly Robbie who is left to do most of her work with her face and body. Tarantino and his crew didn’t push hard to make Robbie look like Tate but instead allowed Robbie to live the character via persona. It works and the role finally convinced me of Robbie’s movie stardom.
Much the same is done with the supporting cast, but in a less positive way. Damon Herriman, Al Pacino, Damien Lewis, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Mike Moh, and Zoe Bell are all underutilized, many getting only one scene, some getting two. Nothing substantial is done with the characters other than representing moments in the lives of the main characters. Lewis and Moh are physically spot-on for their roles as Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, respectively, but then disappear from the film.
Ultimately, the problem is that the film lacks the heart and wildness we’ve come to expect from Tarantino. There is an expected outcome we are driving to but even the subversion of that expectation is not much of a surprise. What might seem like a maturation of the writer/director into some form of restraint instead comes off as the product of someone who had a handful of ideas he was madly in love with but didn’t know what to do with them. Rather than pouring that love into the film, it instead feels cold and distant.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is recognizable as a Tarantino movie, but its overall timidity (other than an over-the-top finale) falls flat. Strong in its business of filmmaking from a technical standpoint, the movie lacks substance and, perhaps the worst thing to say of a Tarantino film, it lacks quotability.
Perhaps there will be a day when we look back on it more fondly. The recent appreciation of “Jackie Brown” is a good example of a film aging well. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood already feels dated.
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween, grew up in Utah, and now lives in Washington with his wife and son. His first two books, CRY DOWN DARK and ASLEEP IN THE NIGHTMARE ROOM were published by Blysster Press and are available on Amazon, or www.blysster.com. In 2020, Giles Press will release TELL NO MAN. Find Tranchell on the web at www.tjtranchell.comof on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.