Quentin Tarantino takes us on a ride through 1969 Los Angeles in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a nostalgic would-be fairy tale with plenty of style but not nearly enough substance.
Tarantino would likely describe this as a “hangout film,” a term he coined himself when discussing his movie Jackie Brown, in which the specifics of the plot are secondary to the camaraderie we as the audience feel with the main characters. The movie does have the languid and meandering pace to fit that descriptor. While it does have a pair of well-developed characters that we get to know quite well, it doesn’t have enough others in its ensemble cast to make it a hangout worth having.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, a washed-up star of a hit Western TV show in the 1950s who has struggled since to find much success due to his alcoholism. Rick confides in his long-time stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a war veteran with a mysterious past who drives Rick around and helps him with odd jobs around the house. Elsewhere in Hollywood, we spend time with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an up-and-coming young actress who happens to live next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. The fates of the three characters are intertwined on one sweltering August evening in the City of Angels.
As a love letter to the dreamy, half-remembered Los Angeles in which Tarantino grew up, this certainly feels like the writer/director’s most personal and heartfelt work to date. He remains a master of style and setting, filling the frame with era-specific details that effortlessly transport us 50 years in the past to this heightened version of Tinseltown. Naturally, the soundtrack is filled with impeccable music cues and convincing radio and TV advertisements (along those lines, be sure to stay through the end credits) that set the tone perfectly. Whether he’s working in nods to old war movies or spaghetti Westerns, Tarantino revels in recreating relics from his pop-culture saturated childhood.
Unfortunately, all of this brilliant table setting is in service of a meal that resembles microwaved leftovers.
Until the concluding moments of the 161-minute runtime, the narrative is largely incident-free and the story elements at play recall those that Tarantino has tackled more deftly in previous work. Thematically, he’s been spinning his wheels for his past few films, so perhaps it’s fitting that so much screen time is devoted to following characters as they drive around the streets of Hollywood. I can’t discuss details of the ending, but it’s enough to say that at this stage in Tarantino’s career, his provocation has become predictable. The most shocking thing that he could do is make a film that didn’t try so hard to throw its audience for a loop.
It’s especially a shame because this is the first time that DiCaprio and Pitt have starred in a project together and the iconic pair of actors are contributing some career-best work in the film. DiCaprio is excellent as an aging actor desperate to hold on to the small amount of fame that he’s accrued, while Pitt synthesizes the laid-back charisma of past legends like Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds to craft a character that epitomizes “cool.”
With a tighter story and more streamlined direction, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood could have ranked among Tarantino’s very best. Instead, it’s a pretty postcard with “see front” written on the back. Coming to theaters this weekend
Hobbs & Shaw, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, is a spin-off of the popular Fast & Furious franchise about a pair of unlikely allies who team up to stop a cyber-genetically enhanced foe.
The Farewell, starring Awkwafina and Tzi Ma, depicts a Chinese family who, upon learning their grandmother only has a short time left to live, decide not to tell her and schedule a family gathering before she dies.
Opening at Cinema Center is Luz, starring Luana Velis and Johannes Benecke, about a young cabdriver who is stalked by a demonic presence in the middle of a run-down police station.