Everyone has a take on the oftentimes whimsical stylings of Tarantino and his use of comic ultra-violence, or his representation of women, or for some odd reason according to my twitter feed in recent weeks, his obsession with feet? While much of Once Upon a Time sets it apart from his usual darker fare, it is the little moments when he slips back into old habits and reliable crutches that spoil the illusion of this 60s set tragicomedy, a film wrapped up in the look and feel of a time since gone while ultimately ignoring the people in it and any sense of tact.
Following dwindling star Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his loyal stuntman and valet Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Once Upon a Time is a film about the ending of an era. Set in 1969 as the age of the hippie is coming to an end and the darkness of change rears its ugly head, Rick is trying desperately to regain his name as a serious actor and Cliff is just trying to maintain his cool amidst a world that seems hellbent on leaving them both behind. Finding her star on the rise amidst all of this, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) might just be the straw that breaks the camels back so to speak.
There is no denying that Quentin Tarantino, despite his perceived flaws, is one of the best directors working today and his 9th film has many of the same artistic flourishes that brought him to prominence back in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs. Unfortunately, the detractors here far outshine the lavish attention to detail that creates a feeling and tone of a place so perfectly.
With an overall oeuvre full of hopeless optimism with a twinge of rampant nihilism this is a film about the end of a story, not the beginning of one and for that reason, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to say here. The story being told doesn’t stretch across the exuberant runtime, it barely keeps you transfixed through the first act despite some lively performances from Dicaprio and Pitt who should be locks for awards contention by years end.
Much in the same way that the 60s were a time of looking around and smelling the flowers, Tarantino wants you to do just that, drink in the bright lights and colours of a world that begs you to sit back and enjoy yourself. Booth himself is a character designed to be emulated, the kind of cool-cat for whom life is easy and nothing can go wrong. Everyone else here lives in some kind of real-world, Cliff lives outside it and unfortunately, he drags you there too.
Dalton, on the other hand, is a creation designed to bring honesty to Tarantino’s Los Angeles, a symbol of how the change that is coming can only mean bad things. The tension Tarantino builds in his second act using Dalton and the looming threat of Charlie Manson and his so-called ‘family’ feels all too familiar, a dark cloud we have been seeing a lot of as of late. However these fleeting moments of dramatic pause never last, the tension spoiled by amusing yet pointless moments of violent release, the kind Tarantino is known for but here shouldn’t have employed.
This dichotomy splits the film down the middle with Rick’s compelling story of highs, lows, genuine learning and catharsis making up one side. The other is devoted entirely to the listless existing of Cliff and Sharon, two people who represent a time, not a person. Their stories are superfluous, additions to a plot lacking in muster. Seperated, these stories function but never impress. Together, they don’t mesh and when they collide in the final act, it is in classic Tarantino fashion. It’s loud, unsubtle and funny but never revealing or thought-provoking. This story despite all the flash ends on a whimper, a return to the norm in a film consumed with change.
What starts as a snapshot of a time and place Tarantino grew up in feels like yet another chapter in the discussion of film violence. Over the course of 150 increasingly long minutes, the curtains fall away from the facade of storytelling as this moves in the direction of a conversation piece. The opening to a debate that started a long time ago. Intent on showing that the line between vulgar and comical is a fine one, OUATIH uses context and history to make displays of brutality almost palatable.
The problem with this intellectual thought experiment approach to filmmaking is that the shifting perspectives and anecdotal style of storytelling achieved here never demands your curiosity or your attention. The use of banal narration to convey plot drills in the notion that this is a discussion to be had, not a film to be enjoyed. While there is an ambition inherent in all of Tarantino’s work, the meaning here gets lost in a mess of conflicting thoughts and ideas.
Ultimately Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a picture of a time half-remembered, the fictionalised memory of a boy, convinced that it wasn’t violence and fear that changed his city and his world, just the sensationalised story of it all, the after memory of a family of killers and the overactive imaginations of the people that lived through it. The irony here is that this subversive adaptation does exactly the same thing, further solidifying the unfortunate notion that here, at this moment in time, Tarantino has nothing to say.