The freshness of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, is in its performances and atmosphere. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are superb, while the production and costume designs, cinematography and ’60s soundtrack create a warm, nostalgic look at a picturesque Hollywood in the year 1969.
DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an actor with a careworn career after he left his successful television show to try his hand at movies (this character’s career trajectory has been likened to Clint Eastwood’s). Pitt is Cliff Booth, his stunt double, driver, drinking buddy and best friend. The film follows their adventures as Rick struggles to find work, and is peppered with flashbacks of their earlier careers, including Cliff engaging in some martial arts maneuvers with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).
Rick’s neighbors in the Hollywood Hills are Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). It’s a bit clunky as Tarantino intercuts between Rick and Cliff’s escapades and Sharon, who spends most of the first half of the movie dancing and looking amazingly beautiful. At a Playboy mansion party, Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) tells us Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) was engaged to Sharon, but she left him after meeting Roman. Yet Jay is good friends with them both, and clearly still cares deeply for her.
The love triangle, though, goes nowhere—Tarantino is busy filling the narrative with superfluity. No exaggeration—45 minutes could’ve been torn from a 161-minute running time and the film would’ve been infinitely better. For, as good as they are, Al Pacino and Kurt Russell’s characters are extraneous. As is the scene in which Rick talks to a young actress (Julia Butters) on the set of his latest western. As is the scene in which Sharon goes to see her movie, The Wrecking Crew, at a screening in a local theater. As is the lengthy scene in which Cliff encounters a herd of Charles Manson’s followers at one of his former shooting locations. And so on. If you want to argue these moments are important for character development, fine, but—my goodness—at least trim them!
This is a common critique of Tarantino’s films: He can’t get out of his own way. He overwrites and doesn’t leave the excess on the editing room floor. It feels like too much of a not-so-good thing. Worse, as happened in The Hateful Eight, the story lacks structure and direction—it’s going nowhere and taking too long to get there. It’s not until the end, when one reflects on the totality of the movie, that true appreciation is felt. During viewing, it drags.
It’s a good thing, then, that DiCaprio and Pitt are excellent. Each shines more individually than when they’re together: DiCaprio, when he’s yelling at himself for not knowing his lines and Pitt, as he plays every situation as cool as can be (given what Cliff encounters, this says a lot). Robbie is good as the doomed actress as well, but doesn’t have as many lines or as big a part as the marketing campaign leads you to expect.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is merely good Tarantino, not great. It’s his ninth film, and ranks somewhere in the middle if you list his best films from top to bottom, best to worst. See it for the performances, as well as the sentimentality for a bygone era Tarantino clearly loves.