ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Brad Pitt (The Big Short), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer), Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys), Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood), Austin Butler (Yoga Hosers), Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Al Pacino (Scarface)

Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)

Runtime: 2 hours 39 minutes

Release Date: 26th July (US), 14th August (UK)

Quentin Tarantino, love him or hate him, is always going to be a legend of cinema. He’s a man whose zest for and knowledge of the form is all encompassing down to the tiniest detail, and that unbridled passion has made him the messiah figure of many a film fan. Now (supposedly) coming to the end of his cinematic career with his penultimate film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, an ode to the era and style of filmmaking he loves so much, it feels like a perfect time and subject matter for Tarantino to really lay down his thesis on his career and film itself. In reality however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t that movie. It’s trying to be at times, but it’s simultaneously trying to be several other movies too, and in trying to be about everything it ends up being about nothing.

Set in the world of film and television circa 1969, Tarantino’s latest is an unfocused and ambulating affair that never quite sets a tone other than “Tarantino flick”. Clocking in at over two and half hours, the film spends much of that runtime meandering through several storylines connected by mere threads, with their relevance to each other and the ultimate point of the film only becoming clear right as the credits start rolling. The first two acts are quite slow and deliberate, with much time spent on quieter, dialogue-free scenes of characters just driving and listening to tunes woven between the usual Tarantino banter. However, just as the pacing seems to settle into a good grove, the third act suddenly leaps it into high gear as we are rocketed through a massive time jump with excessive narration that feels somewhat unnecessary.

The whole affair feels haphazardly put together, with large swaths of story clearly left on the cutting room floor (with the end credits even noting major actors who’ve been excised), and yet the final product still feels unwieldy. Taking many scenes on their own merits, they are fantastically well put together and deserving of a far better movie than this. There’s a brilliant story in here about a Hollywood has-been trying to come to terms with his status in the industry, with some great introspection into not only the Hollywood machine but Tarantino’s career itself. Unfortunately, it seems like the director couldn’t let go of his own vices, with the film leaping into full-on fantasy in the third act in a way that makes complaints about the finales of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained seem pithy. The way it weaves in real world events feels far less justified than Tarantino’s previous historical efforts, and it might have been better if that subject matter had been the focus of its own film or just cut entirely. With it, we have a self-indulgent and esoteric conclusion that will leave viewers unfamiliar with the true events confused, whilst leaving those who do know with a lot of questions about not only how but also why. As the film comes to a close and the film’s message finally dawns, what you’re left with is an egocentric and juvenile piece of revisionist fan fiction that is completely oblivious to its own contemplative possibilities.

When Quentin Tarantino says he’s going to make a new movie, pretty much everyone in the industry wants a role, and with his career coming to an end it seems like he just decided to cast everybody in case he never got to work with them. This is a film jam-packed with stars, with many barely even getting a line before their role is over, but luckily the acting is what ultimately saves Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from being a complete waste of time. Taking centre-stage is Leonardo DiCaprio as washed-up heavy Rick Dalton, and his performance is absolutely fantastic from start to finish. There are so many layers and nuances to his character, making him an endearing yet unpredictable character to follow. It’s just a shame that his arc feels thrown off-course by the film’s end, and ultimately his story would have been better served if you excised it from the rest of the film and cut off before the third act. Brad Pitt is equally brilliant as Dalton’s stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth, bringing a laid-back affableness to a darkly funny character; he’s exactly the kind of guy you love even though he kind of scares you too.

Margot Robbie gives a sweet and understated performance as Sharon Tate, but from a plotting level the film gives her very little to do other than be a symbolic figure. The rest of the cast is so overstuffed it’d take forever to go through everyone, so just be rest assured that no one gives an especially bad performance. However, there are a few names that deserve shout-outs. Firstly, Margaret Qualley is utterly charming and yet unnerving in the role of Pussycat, holding her own against Pitt and once again proving herself a young actor to watch. Then there’s Mike Moh, who gives a spot-on turn as Bruce Lee and has fun with playing an exaggerated version of the legendary martial artist’s persona. However, the star that comes out of nowhere and steals every scene she’s in is Julia Butters as the precocious young method actor Trudi. Her scenes with DiCaprio are among the film’s best, and made me wish the whole movie was just about these two actors at opposite ends of their careers learning from each other.

If you know the aesthetics of a Tarantino movie, you know what to expect here. So many of his film’s have adopted the aesthetics of 1960s B-movies in the past, making one set in the period around the world of B-movies is basically second nature to him. Everything from how the locations have been retrofitted to the fashion of the costume design and even the poster art for Dalton’s fictional films is all beautifully brought to screen with love and attention. There’s some fantastic camera work and editing throughout, with the sequences emulating period films being the main standout in how they emulate the cinematography and artifacting of those old prints and TV broadcasts. Of course, no Tarantino movie would be complete without a fantastic soundtrack, and this film is plenty packed with contemporaneous rock hits both well known and obscure, and I’m sure many a film fan will start associating these songs with the scenes from this movie as a point of reference.

There is so much to like and even love about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood within the details, but when put all together with the film’s narcissistic thesis, the final product is far from the sum of its parts. There’s a much, much better movie hiding in plain sight within this, and it feels like Tarantino either didn’t know what he had or didn’t care. He feels like a slave to his own aesthetics and influences, constantly reaching back to not only his reference films but also his own work instead of forging out something new. It’s easily his weakest film to date, and with only one more supposedly to go, one would better hope he goes out with a bang and not a whimper.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

One thought on “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – an Alternative Lens review”

  1. I think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best film, and I think it is his best because it is more about himself, and his fears and insecurities than any of his other films have been. What you see as him “trying to make the film about everything,” I see as him adding nuance and shades of meaning to his central thesis.

    I agree with you that it does not truly become clear what his thesis is until the film ends, but you are rather coy about what you believe that thesis to be. I would say that is the greatest weakness of your review.

    The closest you come to stating the thesis is to characterize it: “As the film comes to a close and the film’s message finally dawns, what you’re left with is an egocentric and juvenile piece of revisionist fan fiction that is completely oblivious to its own contemplative possibilities.”

    What is the egocentric, juvenile, narcissistic thesis or message that you took from this movie? Is it just a defensive justification of his own filmography. An attempt to engage his critics? A defense of the “problematic” elements of his filmmaking and his personal conduct in Hollywood?

    I think it is all of those things, but more. Here’s the message I took from the movie: I love Hollywood, movies, old TV, old actors, Hollywood lore. I understand that there is a lot of darkness, wrongness, and hypocrisy lurking just beneath the surface, but I still love it, and I think we can find a way to celebrate what is good while recognizing what is not. I was once an enfant terrible; now, I am well-advanced in middle age. I know I have enjoyed incredible success and privilege in the film industry, but it’s never enough. I know that a younger generation of filmmakers think I’m out of touch, that my time is up, and I would be lying if I said it never makes me feel insecure. I want to be loved by the public. I want people to love my films. It feels amazing when people love what I’m doing, and it hurts when they don’t. But what I’m beginning to realize as I get older is that the stress that I’m experiencing comes from within. I have had an amazing career and life and no matter what the future may hold, no one can take that away from me. As to the future, who knows what that may hold? Maybe I’m over the hill, past it, my best days are all behind me. Maybe I’ll find myself disgraced, or out of fashion. Maybe I’ll die tomorrow. But maybe the best is yet to come.

    The movie really resonated with me. I truly believe it’s his best, precisely because I think it has the strongest thesis. I must confess, I’m a middle-aged man, roughly 8 years younger than Tarantino. Maybe this film just isn’t that meaningful to someone who isn’t at the right place in their life to appreciate it.

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