Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

2019 #120
Quentin Tarantino | 161 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 18 / R

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The 9th film by Quentin Tarantino follows the fortunes of struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best mate Cliff Booth (an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt) over a couple of days in Los Angeles, 1969, when they were next-door neighbours to one Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…

I haven’t reviewed Once Upon a Time until now because I didn’t have much to say about it (even my Letterboxd ‘review’ was just a comment on its variable title presentation). Even after reflecting on it, and reading other’s critical reactions, then reflecting on it some more (for over eight months at this point), I didn’t have much to contribute. Why was that? And I’ve kind of realised it’s because the film didn’t make me feel very much.

Sure, there are moments where it did. There are plenty of scenes that are amusing, to varying degrees. The tension as Cliff explores the house of an old friend that’s been occupied by a bunch of hippies. The catharsis and humour of the ultra-violent climax, and the attendant cognitive dissonance of whether we should be revelling so in this historically-revisionist execution of real people — not to mention the factors that further complicate that (you know what they are by now).

And overall I didn’t dislike the film. I wasn’t bored, despite the length; if anything, that helps suck you into the world of 1969. You can certainly feel Tarantino’s love for the era, his desire to recreate — and, indeed, improve — it. (It’s also clear that he really wants to make another Western. The excerpted scenes from Rick’s TV pilot go on for ages, ultimately contributing nothing to the overall story, other than getting to hang out in a ’60s TV Western.) The three main performances are all very good, DiCaprio and Pitt great both as a double act and in their own storylines, and Robbie off in her own little world in a role that arguably offers little on the page but she breathes so much life into.

“Don’t cry, man. It’s only one blogger's opinion.”

It’s all these successes that mean I do consider Once Upon a Time to be a very good film. But at the same time, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling moved or wowed. I expected the history-changing ending ever since the film’s plot was announced, that expectation only cemented further as I learnt of Tarantino’s love for Tate, so I certainly didn’t leave feeling surprised. It ended, and that was that, and I went home.

Tarantino has talked in the past about how Jackie Brown is a “hangout movie”, where the point is not the story but spending time with the characters, and getting to re-spend that time when you watch the movie again, so that you enjoy it more and more with each viewing. I didn’t really get that feeling from Jackie Brown (I didn’t dislike it, but I was underwhelmed and in no rush to revisit it), but I wonder if that’s how Once Upon a Time will work best. The way it wanders through its loose narrative, before arriving at a climax that is, really, only tangentially related to everything else we’ve been watching, does suggest that’s the goal Tarantino had in mind. I can certainly believe he would like to just hang out in the world of Hollywood, 1969. I suspect that’s the driving factor behind why he even made this movie — getting to imagine an alternate history and career for his characters (I’ve seen interviews where he fills in way more backstory than is actually in the film), and using his clout to literally recreate that time and place in real-life rather than through CGI fill-ins.

So, it’s a movie I’ll surely revisit at some point, which is more than can be said for many a film. Perhaps then I’ll have something to say about it.

5 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

6 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

  1. You raise a very good point about this film- its more of a tone poem than what passes as a ‘traditional’ Tarantino flick, which is great in my opinion. Clearly its more of an ode to a time, to a lost era (if it ever truly existed at all) than it is a normal narrative. On that level, I really enjoyed it, just experiencing the art direction and the music and general atmosphere and to be honest, its possibly why I love films like The Apartment, The Odd Couple and Prisoner of Second Avenue so much, the element of gentle escape (although, clearly, those films also have better/normal narrative structures too). Sometimes the appeal of film, is just to see and experience another world, whether it be an America lost to time or a ‘real’ America I’ll never get to visit. Its possibly part of the appeal of much of David Lynch’s filmography.

    Mind, its something that is true of films like Blade Runner too. After all, one of the earliest criticisms that I recall way back in 1982 was that nothing actually happens in Blade Runner. Sure, that’s possibly an OTT shot at the film, but in a way its true. The real pleasure of Blade Runner (and its sequel, too, really) is experiencing the whole world, the look and sound of it. That’s either not enough for many or they can’t see the appeal at all, which is why the film can still get polarising reviews even though widely considered a classic today. I always think of its LA 2019 as a great place to visit. I think the Hollywood 1969 of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood serves much the same function or holds the same appeal.

    Whether that actually makes it a great movie or not is another matter of course!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think all of that is very true. Objectively it makes no sense that anyone would want to live in the world of Blade Runner (it’s a dystopia!) but it’s something that, for whatever reason, appeals to some people. It’s a factor some other people just don’t get, which is why a film that revels in that kind of experience doesn’t work for them — they’ve no interest in “just visiting the world”, they want a story. Which is fair enough, it’s just a different desire.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice. Very true. I really enjoyed this film, and it made me go back and rewatch some of his other films I’d dismissed (Kill Bill 1 is brilliant – smoking hot take right here), and I think you’ve captured why. You can just wallow in it, the characters and place are convincing and it’s lovely to spend time with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I really need to revisit some old Tarantinos as well, actually — I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Reservoir Dogs, but I also haven’t watched it in a very long time. I’m hoping I’ll have a similar revelation to yours for Kill Bill!


  3. Pingback: 2022 | Weeks 12–13 | 100Films.co.uk

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