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Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – “A genius final act and two phenomenal central performances from DiCaprio and Pitt”

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For a different take check out Adam’s review.

There are so many story threads running throughout Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood that it’s difficult to know where to focus your attention – which is bizarre when you think of how well Quentin Tarantino handled the same thing in Pulp Fiction. Here, there is the story of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/friend/driver to all places, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). There is also the story that Rick is currently shooting, a world in which we spend a lot of time. There is Dalton’s neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her new husband, the bigshot director Roman Polanski. There are a bunch of hippies who we know are part of the ‘Manson family’ and one, in particular, who keeps waving at Cliff. And in amongst all of this, there are actors playing actors, a party at the Playboy mansion and all the glossy old posters and neon lights of night-time cinemas in 60s Hollywood.

The story may centre on Rick and Cliff’s friendship and how their lives are unfolding (Rick feels like he’s washed up and Cliff has become a glorified assistant) but there is always the lingering knowledge of the real Sharon Tate at the back of your mind (intentional, I would imagine). DiCaprio and Pitt are flawless in their respective roles. Rick and Cliff are complex and layered characters who have questionable pasts and though each of them has their toe dipped into this glitzy world of Hollywood, neither is entirely accepted by that world. Their working relationship has been going on for a long time and it’s interesting to see how that has bled into both of their personal lives.

By contrast, Robbie does her absolute best with very little dialogue or screen time, radiating joy and wide-eyed wonder (and a lot of smiling). Julia Butters absolutely smashes one of the few developed female parts as young actor Trudi who meets Rick Dalton on set. To hold your own at that age is impressive – to do so opposite DiCaprio even more so. This is surely not the last we will see of her. That said, all are outshone by the real star of the film: Cliff’s dog Brandy who steals every scene and is a very, very good dog.

Tonally, the film cannot make up its mind. Every time we start to get invested in something, be it a character, plot point or general mood, the film jumps to something or someone else and it’s done in a way that lacks any kind of cohesive thread. That, along with the many, many cameos means that, after a while, these shifts make watching the film so utterly jarring that all they do is take you out of the story, again and again.

The first act is slow and tiresome and much of it is spent telling, not showing, the audience about many of the central plot themes and characters. (Literally, there’s a scene where Steve McQueen, played by Damian Lewis, is brought in only to explain who the two men in Tate’s life are – a scene that would have been far more interesting if Robbie had been able to show us with some actual dialogue.) For the final act of the film, however, the story shifts to something with far more tension- and mystery-led, including one sequence, led by Pitt, that is utterly riveting from start to finish. The overall story becomes much tighter and more cohesive and engaging but also brings with it more problematic content.

Unfortunately, the whole thing just feels hugely indulgent. There are numerous long shots of driving or scenery that are clearly meant to set a mood but wind up just becoming boring after a while; a narrator comes and goes as if Tarantino couldn’t decide whether or not to commit to using that tool; the absurd number of shots of (largely but not solely female) feet has become pure farce at this point; and even the violent scenes, done in Tarantino’s often superb cinematic style, really labour the point rather than making it, going on far longer than necessary and lessening the original impact of the moment. And all this in lieu of actually developing a female character or working to make the many threads flow together in a more effective way.

Tarantino is arguably one of the more creative writer/directors working today, which might explain why his films are often so polarising. He isn’t afraid to think and work differently, to make a film that doesn’t cater to everyone. He has a story to tell and he wants to tell it his way. And sometimes that works. Sometimes, his creative genius carries him through and the result is nothing short of spectacular. With this particular film, however, it feels like the only person he is catering to is himself, like he wanted to make an important point about society and the Hollywood system but the only point he ended up making was that his obsession with women’s feet is now wildly out of control.

A genius final act and two phenomenal central performances from DiCaprio and Pitt do not cancel out the utterly incoherent script, the indulgent and lingering camera work, the appalling treatment of Bruce Lee (despite actor Mike Moh’s brilliant performance), and the many female characters whose sole purpose is to react to the men around them. They do, however, make for really interesting post-film debates.

For a different take check out Adam’s review.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood opens in the UK on 14th August 2019.

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