Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film in the filmography of director Quentin Tarantino, one of the most respected and highly anticipated directors in film today. A Tarantino film automatically creates excitement among the movie going public, and sometimes with a director such as Tarantino (or Nolan), their work is held at a higher level than what it is because of the name. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would not be considered as great as many seem to be saying if the name of Quentin Tarantino was not connected to it, because there are a lot of major flaws to the film.
The film was initially being reported as Tarantino’s take on the Charles Manson story in 1969, specifically the murder of Sharon Tate. This movie is not about Charles Manson and the cult is only, really, a secondary aspect of the film.
The movie is about two men, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a famous television actor whose career has taken a downward turn forcing him into taking the “villain-of-the-week” roles to keep acting, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s stuntman/driver/friend/gopher, who works for Rick because he had been blackballed from Hollywood after a rumored incident from a few years before.
Both DiCaprio and Pitt are fantastic in these roles and the charisma between the two characters is undeniable. The movie is based more on their friendship than anything else, although there are giant parts of the film that drops that story to focus on other areas. The best parts of the movie deal with the two men together.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels like a series of cool segments and scenes strung together in a film without a proper through line. There is a feeling of disjointedness to the movie that makes the first 2/3rds of it feel stretched out and, even, dull at times. Undeniably, the final 20 minutes or so is Tarantino at his finest, but the journey to get to that finale is such a chore that the ending does not feel enough to bail the story out.
The problem is there really is no narrative plot to this movie. There are some great scenes and moments, but they do not fit together at all.
There is plenty of character arcs in the film, but there is not enough focus on any one character to make it worthwhile. I would say that Brad Pitt’s character is truly the main character, but I think the film intends for it to be DiCaprio’s character.
Honestly, almost the entire Manson Family stuff could be removed and would help the film out. Of course, since the finale deals with that part of the story directly, you would have to readjust the finale totally. There is a cool scene with Brad Pitt going to the Manson cult’s compound, but it did not provide us with anything for the story moving forward. It was a cool scene, but it did not have a purpose for the film. It was completely isolated from the Rick Dalton character for certain.
There were some great moments with the Rick Dalton character too, specifically parts where Rick is playing a villain in a TV series and interacting with a young method actor (Julia Butters). The monologue DiCaprio delivers in his trailer is an epic meltdown and provides major insight into the recesses of Rick Dalton’s mind and his confidence.
No doubt Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are great in these roles. I really loved Brad Pitt’s character in this movie, but there is a massive back story piece that is just left unresolved that could totally redefine how I think about Cliff Booth. Without spoiling it, I cannot believe that they never revisited this scene again in the movie.
The film looked amazing and there were some very funny moments, but there was just not a story to follow. There were too many characters to call this an effective character study either.
One major waste was the use of Margot Robbie in the movie. She played Sharon Tate (a real life victim of the Manson Cult). Margot Robbie is a star. Every second she was on screen, I could not take my eyes off of her. She was luminous, practically outshining anything on the screen. Sadly though, there was just not much for her to do and that feels like a missed opportunity.
Some of the best parts dealt with the look at Hollywood in the late 1960s and many of the films/shows that Rick Dalton appeared in. Still, there was a lack of inter-connectivity here making them all feel too isolated.
I am convinced that if this film did not have Tarantino’s name on it, critics would be singing a different tune about it. That double standard needs to be addressed some day. Until then, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood certainly has some positives to it, but it just does not feel like a complete film, which is saying something for a movie that goes for 2 hours and 45 minutes. DiCaprio and Pitt are great, but Margot Robbie needed more. And if you were interested in seeing Tarantino’s take on the Manson Family, forget it. It is one of the least violent Tarantino films (until act 3, that is).