Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running Time: 161 mins
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an American film about the lives of three people living in Hollywood in 1969, as a leading actor and his stunt double try to save their careers from fading into oblivion.
With a body of work that covers a huge range of historical periods, genres and themes, the films of Quentin Tarantino are rightly some of the most acclaimed in modern history. With Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the director again moves to a riveting piece of history at the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, recreating the time period with a clear passion and nostalgia for all things 1969.
However, as obvious as Tarantino’s love for the period and this story is, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood unfortunately sees him at his most self-indulgent, casting aside any form of narrative consistency for trips back in time to the movie and TV world of old. In that, as impressive as the film may be aesthetically, it failed to grab me at all for the best part of two hours, and although there is certainly depth and intrigue throughout, it seems that Tarantino’s focuses lie squarely elsewhere than telling a great story.
Now, there’s always a lot to talk about with a Tarantino film, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is no exception. Coming in at a mammoth two hours and forty minutes, a lot happens over the course of this film, as we see the lives of fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) unfold against the backdrop of the twilight of the Hollywood Golden Age.
With a setting like that – and a director with such love for film as Tarantino – it’s inevitable that the film is going to be filled with homages and references to the period, something that’s always nice to see as a little wink throughout.
However, more than simply an homage to the atmosphere and works of the late 1960s, Tarantino really goes to town when it comes to recreating the works of the time. While we see a number of segments from ’60s films both real and imagined, the majority of the film’s first two acts is taken up by a number of films-within-a-film that take us back to the days of the good old Hollywood western with star Rick Dalton.
As he proved with The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s love for the classic western is undying, and he delivers once again on capturing the essence of the genre better than anyone else. However, as nice as that is from a nostalgic and aesthetic standpoint, these western films-within-a-film take us away from the action of the ‘real’ world far too often, and for far, far too long.
I really enjoyed Dalton and Booth’s story – trying to salvage their careers at a vital point of change in Hollywood history – but too often does the film move away from those characters and into a fantasy land of Tarantino’s imagination. Again, these imagined, recreated classic films are great to see, but only for a couple of minutes, whereas there are a number of full, twenty minute-long sequences that take us entirely out of the main story to a movie set that doesn’t offer anything new to the plot except further showing us how much the director loves these classic movies.
So, as genuinely engaging as I found the main story, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is guilty of indulging in its homages and the director’s fantasies to a painfully obstructive degree, with the breaks away from the core plot creating a massively inconsistent narrative, jarring scene changes, and a massive obstacle to any sort of engrossing tension or drama under the surface.
The phrase ‘style over substance’ gets thrown around a lot, and some may use it to describe this movie. After all, Tarantino’s obsession with recreating classic Hollywood really does get in the way of the film’s story. However, that phrase suggests there is no substance to be seen, and that definitely isn’t the case with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
As much as I found the narrative inconsistency and jarring nostalgia trips frustrating, the core story is still very good. It’s not necessarily the high-stakes, tension-packed and intricate plot that the best Tarantino films are famous for, but with a striking calmness and maturity that we haven’t really seen from the director all the way through a film, it’s an engaging drama throughout.
With an excellent dynamic between DiCaprio’s Dalton and Pitt’s Booth, the friendship at the centre of the story is great to follow, with the best humour on show and some really touching scenes that look at growing old and outdated, while also touching on class divisions in the higher echelons of Hollywood, and the importance of image and the works you pick in show business.
Alongside, while it may not feature the same depth, we follow the movements of young actress Sharon Tate, which offers up more opportunity for late ’60s movie nostalgia. An often pleasant aside from Dalton and Booth’s story, her appearance brings us closer to the real history of the events that unfold in the film’s latter half, as the characters encounter the infamous Manson family cult.
So, there is a lot to talk and think about in this story – and that’s why I can’t call this film ‘style over substance’. However, as interesting as a lot of that story is, it’s drawn out over an excessively long runtime, and at a painfully slow, bumpy pace.
The intrusions of the films-within-a-film are without a doubt the main problem, taking you out of the story for far too long and offering nothing of real narrative value in return. Some asides are better than others – particularly those starring Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth – but they generally prove a jarring obstacle for the story as a whole, and extend the film’s runtime to a ludicrous and unnecessary degree.
Slow, long films are by no means a bad thing, but the jumping back and forth is something that really got on my nerves throughout, something that doesn’t settle down at all for the first two acts, only finally coming to a head in a far more gripping and thankfully consistent finale.
It seems, then, as deep as Tarantino’s love and passion for this time period and the film industry of the 1960s is, he goes overboard with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Visually, the film is a delight, with wonderful production and costume design throughout (although cinematography that doesn’t always go the whole hog with its homage to the style of the ’60s), but as far as grabbing you for two and a half hours with a great story goes, I can’t say that this film is much of a success.
Fans of the time period will enjoy this film aesthetically, and Tarantino fans will love to see his passion for yet another part of film history on display. However, passion and good aesthetics just aren’t enough to carry a film for so long, and although there is a good story being told, it’s interrupted and made more difficult to immerse yourself in by Tarantino’s indulgences, and that’s why I’m giving Once Upon A Time In Hollywood a 7.5 overall.