Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has always excelled at reinventing established film genres and subgenres in a way that feels new and relevant. Through a mix of savvy storytelling, innate craftsmanship, and sheer fandom, Tarantino has taken on crime (1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction), blaxploitation (1997’s Jackie Brown), martial arts (2003’s Kill Bill), the Spaguetti western (2012’s Django Unchained), and many others. The results are usually a veritable punch to the gut, but sometimes he misses the mark (the less said about 2007’s Death Proof , the better).
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a strange pic for Tarantino in that there’s no clear genre to deconstruct, but a rather trickier subject: The self-mythologizing of Hollywood itself. Tarantino structures his movie around two actors in the late 1960’s, fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) and up-and-coming talent Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Dalton spends most of his time lamenting his diminishing celebrity status with best friend/stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt), while next-door neighbor Tate goes to parties at The Playboy Mansion and watches herself onscreen at the cinema. There’s callbacks to shows like Lancer (1968-1970) and The F.B.I. (1965-1974), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) pops up to fight Booth on the set of The Green Hornet (1966-1967), and Steve McQueen and Roman Polanski have brief “cameos.”
It’s all meant to be breezy fun, but the usual Tarantino verve and wit seem restrained in favor of a more lackadaisical vibe that seems more interested in recreating an era than in developing memorable characters and situations. It’s only towards the climax that things get a little more interesting, as we realize what Tarantino’s really interested in: The intersection of reality and fiction. While Dalton and Booth never existed in real life, Tate is another matter entirely, having been viciously killed – along with her unborn child and four others – by Charles Manson’s “family” on August 9, 1969. Offering an alternate version of history just as he did with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained, Tarantino ends Once Upon a Time in Hollywood like a “fairy tale” – right there in the title itself – in which the Manson clan enter Dalton’s home instead of Tate’s… and end up mauled, smashed, and torched to death. What’s more, the film’s coda has Dalton being invited into Tate’s social circle, heavily implying that the connection will revive his fledgling career (maybe he’ll get a part in Polanski’s Chinatown five years later?)
How much you like this ending will depend on your own level of tolerance for Tarantino’s unique brand of B-movie shock within a revisionist context – I myself don’t think that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are particularly successful in their attempts to rewrite the horrors of fascism and slavery with the more low-grade pleasures of cult cinema – but no one can deny it’s ballsy. However, just like with Django Unchained, I found Once Upon a Time in Hollywood too rambling and unfocused to earn its finale and come into a satisfying whole. This is a lesser effort from a guy who can certainly do much more.
Carlos I. Cuevas