Ewan Gleadow

Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

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Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Al Pacino in Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood (2019)

© Sony Pictures Entertainment

It’s quite the spectacle that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first Quentin Tarantino feature I have witnessed on the big cinema screen. But spectacle shouldn’t really relay any added bonuses for his latest feature. Set (obviously) in Hollywood, the latest Tarantino piece sees Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio as a dynamic duo that I didn’t quite expect. Once Upon a Time is a love letter to cinema, it’s easy to see the influences, references and insights that Tarantino brings to the table, even if you aren’t familiar with his work in the slightest. 

Following an out-of-work stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) and leading man Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), Dalton finds himself on the back end of a successful run of movies. Struggling to get work, he finds himself confined to guest appearances on television. Next door to Dalton lives Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). The interact with one another is kept to a minimum, but their stories end up intertwine, I guess. The narrative is not exactly the most forthright or creative piece Tarantino has ever written, and unfortunately, he loses his way somewhat with two storylines that never meet in any bold or interesting enough way.  

The movie tends to feels aimless, perhaps that may be in part due to the lack of connection between the Tate storyline and that of Dalton and Booth’s struggle to get back on top in the competitive industry. Some characters only appear once or twice in the entire running time, and the way they’re all brought together could easily be described as clumsy, merely an afterthought. A range of fresh faces don cameo-like appearances as famous stars of the time period, while returning Tarantino collaborators appear for brief interludes to pad out the movie’s running time. From a sudden narration from Kurt Russell that serves as a way of explaining away any plot holes to the one scene Michael Madsen receives as a sheriff in an episode of Rick Dalton’s old TV programme, it is somewhat enjoyable to see familiar faces pop up here and there. But what purpose do they have aside from people like me being able to point at the screen and go “I know them?” Nothing, is the answer. There is no real reason for either of the two to be in the movie, and it’s a shame since I am a fan of both of their work. A shame then that instead of smart dialogue and a script full of riffs between the leads, we instead get a script that feels unfinished.  

Flickering through three potentially interesting storylines, we follow Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie as they go about their lives. I’ve listed them in order of most to least interesting there, but it’s fair to say that all three are, at the very least, enjoyable. Aside from a trio of engaging performances that rarely converge in something glorious, they all bring about some great acting and that’s to be expected from some certainly talented individuals. I struggle to name anyone else that gives an enjoyable performance though. Al Pacino feels wasted in a tiny role that’s used solely for exposition and plot progress, rather than a unique or interesting supporting character. Bruce Dern’s one scene appearance is a nice touch, but ultimately is completely useless.  

A handful of nods to his older films will make uber fans of the director go nuts for this movie, but outside of that there seems to be very little effort from Tarantino. His idea of stylish shots is to place the camera at tilted or unexpected angles, similar to the work of Terry Gilliam, but without the outlandish and creative visuals that work. Tarantino’s direction here feels more complacent than anything else, with a lot of his camera angles and cinematography feeling ineffective, and this may be due to a lack of editing which lead to a bloated running time weighed down by a non-existent initiative to bring us something truly spectacular.  

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels less and less like a stylish Tarantino film, as it trudges through an overly long running time packed with useless subplots and poor character development, it’s a surprise that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood comes off as well as it does. The strengths of leading lads DiCaprio and Pitt serve well here in a film that is otherwise devoid of any contemporary structure or style. By movie standards, it certainly sticks out among the rest of wildly mediocre movies from this year, but for a Tarantino film, it’s certainly one of his weakest pieces.