‘Once Upon a Time’ has plenty to show but takes too long
It’s quite fitting that Quentin Tarantino set his latest film, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” in the year 1969. For his love letter to the industry, that year was one from which wild and bold voices emerged:
- “Midnight Cowboy” became the first X-rated film to win Best Picture
- Sam Peckinpah bathed the screen in blood with “The Wild Bunch”
- Dennis Hopper brought counterculture to the fore with “Easy Rider.”
And other emerging voices were ushering in a new cinematic chapter for the industry, one that reflected the social and sexual revolutions that were taking place at the time and gave rise to such distinct directors as Ken Russell, Haskell Wexler, Costa-Gravas, and Ken Loach.
Tarantino was part of a similar cinematic rebellion in the mid-1990s, along with names such as Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Todd Solondz, and Paul Thomas Anderson, who all tore down the more traditional narrative ideals.
And while “Once Upon a Time” is wholly from the mind of Tarantino, it is awash in praise of all those changing the industry a generation before him. Set over the course of three nonconsecutive days in Los Angeles, the film follows Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging, marginal film star who had a one-time hit TV show, but is now relishing in guest appearances where he plays the heavy.
Rick is seldom without his longtime stuntman and best bud, Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt). Cliff is more than happy to serve as Rick’s gopher – driving him, serving as handyman around the house, and generally looking after his pal. It’s the type of male companionship that is seldom seen in films, and one in which they both carry genuine affection and appreciation for one another.
After they learn that Rick’s new home in the hills is right next door to hot director Roman Polanski and his young wife actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie), Rick feels he is a mere pool party invitation away from his next big break. But Cliff tends to lean more in the direction of advice from a bottom-feeding agent (played by Al Pacino) who is urging Rick to head to Italy and star in a string of spaghetti Westerns where he can claim cinematic star status.
Anyone with a slight knowledge of history knows how the story of Sharon Tate ends, but Tarantino’s take on the events here is about as accurate as his portrayal of World War II in “Inglourious Basterds.” However, he still manages to build tension with his characters’ fleetingly crossed paths with the Manson Family clan, including a dread-inducing visit from Cliff to the Spahn Ranch, which many of Manson’s cult called home during that time.
And the director nails the aesthetic of the period. Every scene is crafted to re-create that Hollywood era to its finest detail. Ever the purist, Tarantino gives us plenty of shots of old film and TV clips, all in their respective aspect ratios.
Despite the pall cast over the proceedings by the inclusion of the Manson Family storyline, the film is considerably less violent than previous works, choosing instead to focus on Rick’s struggles with his career. And DiCaprio delivers, yet again, another stunning, raw performance that will be considered at year’s end.
Pitt, as Cliff, is also an asset and the embodiment of cool. After all, Tarantino based the story on the friendship between stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds. But aside from his aforementioned visit to the ranch, he’s not really given too much to do but drive ... and drive ... and drive. Still, that is more than the director gives Robbie, who only giddily dances around the screen and goes to watch herself in a local movie house. That’s really her only arc here.
I appreciate Tarantino’s interest in immersing us into his world, but at almost three hours, this effort goes from immersion to drowning. Long stretches of the film feel repetitive, meandering and unfocused. By traditional Tarantino standards, the cinematography, camera and production design are top-shelf throughout, and he is capable of re-creating the era down to every last marquee sign.
Like taking a L.A. star tour with an overzealous guide who wants to take you to “just one more stop,” “Once Upon a Time…” has plenty to show us – it just takes a bit too long to get there.