Written by Barry Levitt
A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. (IMDb)
In a summer overflowing with remakes, sequels and attempts to keep various franchises afloat, its something of a miracle to see a film like Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. The latest film from beloved director Quentin Tarantino is a sprawling epic that takes place in 1969. It’s an entirely original blockbuster – which is a phrase that feels like its headed for extinction.
Tarantino’s latest stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a major star of a 50’s Western television show, who is haunted by the idea that his career is coming to an end. Sharing this fear is Dalton’s best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), an ageing veteran who lives in his trailer with his pit bull Brandy (my current pick for animal performance of the year). Cliff drives Rick around town as Rick’s high-functioning alcoholism has resulted in a number of DUIs. Further to this, Cliff has been out of film work since his wife died – a death that many consider Cliff responsible for. Meanwhile, upcoming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, film director Roman Polanski, move in next door to Rick. The film cycles through the stories of Rick, Cliff and Sharon, though this is unmistakably a showcase for DiCaprio and Pitt.
Both DiCaprio and Pitt, in fact, deliver sensational performances. Both of these characters are so well thought out. They feel like whole, complex and nuanced people who are a pleasure to follow around. The real highlight in this film is Brad Pitt, oozing as much sexual charisma as he did twenty years ago, paired with a real sense of finality that is absolutely arresting to watch.
Once Upon a Time shines in various set-pieces. Two particular stand-outs include Rick Dalton’s moments with his young co-star on a new TV pilot, and my personal favourite scene in the film, Cliff’s visit to the Manson Family Ranch. The scenes crackle with terrific dialogue and they are emblematic of everything that makes this film tick.
That being said, everything fails to really come together. There are benchmarks of what makes Tarantino so beloved – a brilliant soundtrack and crackling dialogue – but for whatever reason it doesn’t really feel like a signature Tarantino films. The director is so good at creating tightly wound story structures, but this film feels far too sprawling (and at almost three hours, it certainly is).
One of the biggest issues in the film is the character of Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie is an exceptionally talented actress, and she does a great job with what she has. There’s a poignant moment when Tate goes to the cinema to see one of her own films. We understand everything she is feeling through Robbie’s face, and its touching. There is so little for the character (and for Robbie) to do, especially in comparison to DiCaprio and Pitt’s fleshed out characters. It almost begs the question as to what this character is even doing in the film. It feels more as if she is a character from another film entirely that’s wandered into the frame.
There are some exceptional stand-out moments that contain so much of why people have such a fervent love for Quentin Tarantino, and these scenes are certainly the films highest peaks. But as the credits roll, there’s a sneaking suspicion that the massive, sprawling Once Upon a Time never really comes together, and feels more like a series of set-pieces rather than a complete film. Still, it’s hard to be upset that an entirely original film is getting people talking. We need more big efforts like this one, even if it doesn’t quite work.