In the months leading up to the release of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly explained that he intends to retire from filmmaking after he releases his 10th movie. By his own (dubious) accounting, this one is number nine.
But even with its flaws—and there are many—Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood feels like a career capper. Tarantino has built his filmography on a platform of cinephilia, remixing and referencing elements from all his favorite movies to make new ones. Now, he’s cut out the middleman and made a whole movie about Hollywood itself, set in an idealized and lovingly recreated version of Los Angeles circa 1969. If you’re content to luxuriate in it, you might have a good time too. But you shouldn’t expect anything more than that.
Coming on the heels of his nasty, unapologetically nihilistic The Hateful Eight, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood feels jarringly nostalgic, with a narrative drive that only occasionally comes into focus. This is probably Tarantino’s shaggiest story. It’s certainly his most sentimental. There’s an unexpected wistfulness to the narrative—like Tarantino is so happy to be occupying this place and time that he’s reluctant to interrupt it with well-defined characters or an interesting plot.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood mostly splits its time between two men confronting the decline of their Hollywood careers with varying degrees of despair. There’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who once starred in a western series called Bounty Law, who subsequently made a failed run at movie stardom and has since been reduced to guest-starring as the baddie on other actors’ western TV shows. And there’s Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)—theoretically Dalton’s stuntman, but in actuality something between a best friend and a Man Friday—who cruises around L.A. in Dalton’s car, hustling for work without looking too concerned about it.
I hope you like these guys, because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them as they bumble around film sets and the Hollywood hills. Uncharacteristically, Tarantino lets many scenes drag on too long, and to diminishing returns; his dialogue, which usually feels like every syllable has been calibrated for maximum impact, sometimes smacks of half-formed improv (with strange jump cuts to match). The larger plot itself is just as breezy and directionless, jumping between Dalton nursing his insecurities on the set of Lancer and Cliff on a series of comical little misadventures, including the Bruce Lee bit you saw in the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood trailer and a flirtatious encounter with a young hippie that veers into compelling-but-predictable territory.
For a little while, it seems like a third protagonist is also in the offing. Early scenes centered on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) seem to position her as a third P.O.V. character, setting up expectations for a Pulp Fiction-esque split between three semi-interconnected Los Angeles stories. But as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Tarantino is mostly interested in Sharon Tate as a 1960s cultural icon, and not as an actual person. There’s an implicit rise-and-fall contrast between Dalton and Tate, but there’s no real arc for Sharon Tate herself, and Robbie spends at least as much of the movie dancing as she does speaking. (There are also several lengthy, totally needless shots of Robbie’s bare feet, because Tarantino gonna Tarantino.)
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is packed with real-life figures like Tate, inviting audiences who love 1960s Hollywood as much as Tarantino to play spot-the-reference to real celebrities—some well-known today, and some largely forgotten. Almost invariably, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood presents its celebrities at the height of their success and happiness. But Tarantino’s grab-bag of celebrities also focuses disproportionately on people whose lives would soon head in a darker direction, including now-notorious figures like Roman Polanski (who fled the country after pleading guilty to sex with a minor) and James Stacy (who suffered massive injuries after a motorcycle accident, and later served time in prison for child molestation).
As the iconic faces and places pile up, you get the sense that Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is ultimately intended as both a tribute and a time capsule. It reminds audiences—watching a movie set 50 years in the past—that these people really existed by freezing them in their glory days. But by depicting figures like Polanski and Stacy at the height of their cultural moment—without even nodding at the downfalls to come—the movie also feels strangely exculpatory. I believe that Tate deserves to be remembered as more than a murder victim. I am less convinced that James Stacy’s work on Lancer deserves the same rose-tinted treatment.
In the end, the key to unlocking the real point of this movie is the title, which positions it as a kind of fairy tale—a self-contained world in which the good vibes of the 1960s are frozen in amber before the hard crash of the 1970s. It has been argued that culturally, the 1960s actually ended in August of 1969, when members of the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate and her houseguests. By setting the majority of the movie’s action six months before the murders were committed, Tarantino is giving audiences the chance to luxuriate in the drug without suffering the hangover.
But for anyone with even a passing knowledge of what happened to Sharon Tate, it’s impossible not to think about what looms on the horizon. And that brings us to the movie’s final act. The closest thing to actual dramatic tension in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is the clock that will be ticking in the heads of the audience—particularly as numerous characters (both real and fictional) cross paths with various members of the Manson family.
It’s impossible to write about how Tarantino ultimately addresses the Tate murders in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood without taking the piss out of the whole thing. But I can say that the climax—like much of the rest of the movie—feels like a lesser variation on something Tarantino has already done before.
And that’s the most disappointing thing about Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: Nothing about it is surprising, even when it intends to be, because it’s all built on the bones of stuff you’ve seen Tarantino do before. Depending on how generous you’re feeling, Tarantino has spent much of his career either borrowing from or paying homage to the decades of crime thrillers, kung-fu movies, and westerns that came before him. As his filmmaking career nears its self-imposed crescendo, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Tarantino’s first film that feels like his primary interest is in borrowing from or paying homage to himself.
Originally Appeared on GQ