Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood (2019)

You can also listen to my thoughts in podcast-form here:
http://www.directorsclubpodcast.com/blog/onceuponatime

Preface: I went back to an incident in my mind where I once said something that I immediately realized was the absolute wrong thing to say. “Polanski may have done this horrible crime, but he did make Chinatown.” I said this in a glib, joking manner once but with those words spoken out loud, I realized that I was unintentionally making an excuse the way I think a lot of people do because he has continued to work long after the accusations surfaced. I know deep down that Polanski should not forgiven / acquitted and shouldn’t even be allowed to work in any way. I had to clarify and reiterate this after what I had said because I know that it’s true: no one should get away with what he did. Yet, there was still something embedded in my psyche that allowed that statement to emerge, whether I truly meant it or not. I actually was grateful to be called out right in the moment. So now, with this monumental blunder I once made coming to mind, something in me also reacted negatively to a few things portrayed in the latest film from Quentin Tarantino. There’s an even a moment where Rick Dalton, who can’t quite confirm that he's friends with a wife killer, decides to excuse him anyway. “So he may have done this horrible thing, but he’s a war hero and a great stuntman.” I’ll elaborate further later on but this is what I’m choosing to open with, since it might explain my bias and mostly negative response.

Quentin Tarantino movies have been engaging, entertaining, and worthy of further analysis upon repeat reviewings even when they’re considered to be problematic. I’d liken the experience of walking out to The Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson. Sometimes one is confounded at first that going back to it again might allow for further insight. Tarantino was one of the first to show me many facets of film genre, can be self-contained in one film. Watching his work was like attending film school especially once I learned about his influences thanks to a biography I read. I can easily say that a lot of my love of cinema came courtesy of seeing Pulp Fiction in a theater twice with a friend of mine when I was 16-years-old. Since then, several of his films have their issues or curious choices, but in the end, he has always been primarily a director I championed. He loves movies, so do I. He loves actors, music, writing, and it’s always been clear to me that his strength is in the construction of dialogue and crafting a satisfying narrative built in worlds that come purely from a healthy combination of experience and imagination. Granted, some of that incredible dialogue over the years came into question particularly with racial slurs and justifiably so. Even in my favorite film of his, I do sense it being overused even if “that’s how those characters would talk.” With his latest film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I experienced frustration, restlessness, and a general sense of impatience in a way that I never would’ve anticipated. Part of me is still in disbelief that this exists as is.

There were people who complained about Jackie Brown being languid and even predictable with its conclusion. (My dear old dad even said, “I was expecting more of a twist ending.”) My defense of my favorite film of his has always been that it celebrates human beings being human. It takes its time. There are so many favorite moments in his entire filmography that I can point to in that film - from Melanie and Louis looking at old photos, to the realization from Ordell about who has scammed him out of his money. I think of the remarkably vulnerable moment where Jackie and Max sit down over coffee, listening to an old record, and eventually talk about what it means to grow old. Part of me needed more of that here and in less of an episodic manner. The one truly bright shining moment in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood comes about midway, when Rick Dalton (played by the consistently great Leonardo DiCaprio) sits down to read a book beside a young actor (played by Julia Butters, who we will be seeing a lot more of in the future). Watching this scene was indicative of the Tarantino that I love. He gets to the heart of a character’s plight that is portrayed in a way that is undeniably relatable, human, and feels organic in the moment right down to the coughs and pauses. It’s not unlike what he does with Jules and Vincent sitting down to breakfast in a diner towards the end of Pulp Fiction before the robbery ensues. So perhaps it comes down to preference and this one was just not for me. There really are only a couple of moments that I felt truly resonated here. Oddly enough, the best involve the young actor who comforts Rick while also being real with him in the abovementioned scene. Then later, hearing her say “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen,” followed by Rick’s reaction was what I felt this film needed more of. One thing’s for sure, this is a truly great performance from Leonardo DiCaprio who continues to bring his A-game to every single role.

Now that I’ve got the positive attributes out of the way, allow me to retort to the praise a bit. Though I would also point out this piece by Ani Bundel as summing up some of my thoughts successfully. Part of me wants to rework this as a commentary on the idiocy of masculinity and white male heroism, but it’s clear that Tarantino worships the aging actor and stuntman turned chauffeur. Whereas the majority of critics I follow and read seem to think this is one of his best films, due to how personal it is, I shockingly felt the opposite. It devolved into one of his worst, if not his worst for me. I thought it was slow, meandering, shapeless, poorly edited, and actually questionable with some of the choices made here. Portraying Bruce Lee in that way was no doubt meant to be comedic especially with the payoff involving Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell. However, it didn’t sit well with me to not only have Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth more or less say, “Let’s get into a fight,” a’la Fight Club, but for him to mock Bruce Lee seemed unnecessary. To show how much of a badass this guy is, we had to watch him fight someone like Bruce Lee? Added to that there is dialogue here and there that includes, “Don’t let the Mexicans see you crying” along with a moment later on where we learn of Rick’s days starring in a Spaghetti Western that has the tagline, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Again, all for comedic effect and even the audience I saw it with laughed. I just didn’t think either added much to the proceedings. Similarly to how they laughed during the troubling final act though we’ll get there. So maybe it just comes down to not finding these things funny, even if they’re meant to reflect a time and era where most folks wouldn’t bat an eyelash to these inclusions. They more or less embraced them. Part of me does say, “I should lighten up and laugh too,” part of me finds it unnecessary to include these in a nearly three-hour film that feels overlong and overstuffed. Though part of me wonders (like a lot of Tarantino’s recent output) what this story could’ve been like as a miniseries with a stronger ending. That’s not to say there weren’t individual scenes that brought a smile to my face. I laughed heartily at an extended jump-cut laden sequence in Rick’s trailer and what he says about whiskey sours is one of the few quotable moments. Leo sells that kind of manic outburst with the best of them.

But a lot of this script felt troubling in ways that either never pay off or came across as manipulative. In one scene, after the audience has been set up to think of Cliff as the one guy in the movie with his head on straight, we learn that he is rumored to have killed his wife and may have gotten away with it. Yes, it is meant to be ambiguous and we’ll never know the truth either way. But there’s a sloppy smash-cut flashback that is meant to suggest that the nagging wife had it coming to her. Again, this really didn’t add nothing to the overall story and somehow made murdering two women later on, grotesque and morally shaky. Somehow the celebration of violence from the audience managed to make me upset, which is not something I usually experience. I’m sure this will be touched upon more throughout my take. Come to think of it, there are a lot of unnecessary smash-cut edits that actually felt off-kilter and even lazy. Did we need to cut back to the origins of the acid-laced cigarette twice? Or suddenly have narrator Kurt Russell interject with “Well, that was a lie.” When that happened early on, I did fear another case of overuse voiceover to clear things up which was one of the few quibbles I had with his last film. For a good long stretch, my fears were not realized, until the title card “six months later” comes up and Kurt Russell shows up to narrate the evening’s events that lead up to the inevitable night of murder + mayhem. Again, why? I don’t need to hear some ominous voice explaining that Sharon Tate had a case of “melancholy,” I can see it on her face. For a film that felt so relaxed, suddenly it seemed as if it was in a hurry to get to what we know is coming. Or do we? 

Let’s also talk about the presence of Sharon Tate in this film, portrayed wonderfully by Margot Robbie particularly while she’s dancing to delightful pop music and/or sitting in a movie theater. The best thing I can say about the entire film is that all three lead performances are wonderful, even if Robbie does have little dialogue as others have pointed out. She’s meant to serve as a symbol of innocence and wide-eyed wonder, like an angelic spirit representing the golden age of movies. Robbie captures this starlet that we tragically lost with grace and lucidity. Clearly Sharon Tate was beautiful and charismatic and the film really does suggest that she could’ve gone on to a great career. I’m more or less okay with this portrayal and Tarantino’s decision as a storyteller to let her be an archetype of joy and transcendence. No need to harp on her dirty feet though, in my opinion. But that goes without saying for nearly all of the women. As we follow the duo of Cliff and Rick throughout their daily encounters, the presence of Charlie Manson floats around like an apparition too. His name is mentioned but we pretty much only see him once on screen. A deliberate and interesting choice, no doubt. To follow him further might’ve been another disservice. Meanwhile his disciples linger around the fringes of the film like an unshakable dark shadow growing increasingly closer. There’s a section in this film that played remarkably well as a tension-fueled nightmare when we see the cult of hippie creeps at Spahn Ranch. It gets cut short a bit once Tex returns, but outside of that, I did appreciate the patience and apprehension carried throughout that extended moment of possible confrontation. However, that tension is diffused with its off-kilter, predictable final act. If you’ve seen Inglorious Bastards especially, you know what Tarantino has in mind for these hippies that ruined history and massacred innocent people one fateful August night.

The last act really bothered me. We are suddenly and clumsily interjected by Kurt Russell as a narrator who explains a rushed-montage of events, which is highly bizarre, rather than letting them play out in ways that complement everything that came before it. That patience and restraint immediately evaporated culminating in a burst of graphic violence that comes out of nowhere. Granted, those evil Manson followers came out of nowhere in reality as well. Here, they simply walk into the wrong house only to find Cliff Booth, tripping on acid and suddenly reactionary towards the intruders. That fateful August night subverts expectations in a way that left a bad taste in my mouth. Hearing an audience cheer Cliff on to pummel a woman’s face into a phone, then a concrete fireplace, made me wince. Granted, I know and recall what happened to villainous Daisy Domergue in The Hateful 8 too. That movie was mean to the core so it felt right in line with the rest. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood seemed more like a quiet, calm, reflective fairy tale of sorts until it decides to get Evil Dead on us by piling on blood, screams and revenge. I know the intention is to provide vicarious catharsis for the audience - an alternate history to what really happened. Or maybe it didn’t at all, since Cliff Booth was tripping on acid and even asks, “Are you real?” Either way, I couldn’t justify the decision to go that route including the choice to use a flamethrower on a woman floating in a pool. Murderer or not, I didn’t think it was the right choice. The audience broke into applause so once again, I felt on the outside looking in with my reaction. Another highlight of the film does nicely culminate with an affirmation of true friendship between Cliff and Rick, once Cliff drives off in an ambulance. Maybe I wanted to see Tarantino exhibit more heart and less furious anger towards hippies. I understand these particular hippies were brainwashed murderers and the fate received here allows the audience to experience what they couldn’t in reality, but not once did I find it entertaining to witness. There’s also something weird about Emile Hirsch playing Jay Sebring too and getting some of the final bits of dialogue, when Hirsch does nothing for this portrayal and since he has his own legal battles concerning assault charges towards women, I see no reason for him to be cast in this whatsoever. That being said, the very final shot moved me but I was still wrestling with what came before it. So many mixed emotions to work through, which I’m actually grateful to have experienced. Honestly, the same has happened with two other beloved films from this year: Us and Midsommar. In the end, this film feels unremarkable in the Tarantino canon and downright forgettable rather than vital. I have no desire to experience this world the way I do with his other works, as harsh and difficult as they’ve often been, particularly with The Hateful 8.

One can say that Tarantino is commenting on the era of filmmaking itself along with a greatest hits package featuring familiar faces. He might be saying that white male machismo is long gone and guys like Burt Reynolds simply don’t exist anymore. I’d buy an argument that his intention is merely self-reflective - looking back at his previous work, the movies that he grew up, the day that Hollywood died. The execution of these themes didn’t seem cohesive in a way that even qualifies this as a fully realized work. There isn’t even a speck of memorable dialogue, delivered with the same explosive energy and cadence that all of his films embrace. The overall end result is captivating in segments, without a doubt. I’ll go to bat for the music, the production design, the performances, and certainly a couple of highlights that will stick with me. Honestly, the scenes between Julia Butters and DiCaprio are among Tarantino’s best, everything else surrounding it felt questionable rather than satisfying. I’m willing to sit with the questions and let them percolate which makes this one of the more interesting films of 2019, without a doubt. I was simply let down and underwhelmed by the overall whole, which didn’t cohere for me in a way that I enjoyed. I know a lot of people ragged on Inherent Vice for also being unsatisfying for a myriad of reasons including the choice to be meandering and occasionally misogynistic, but the choices in that period piece felt right at home for me. There was a lot of comedy, paranoia, internal conflict and a reasonable arc to follow even if the final scene doesn’t exactly spell out what may or may not come next. Under The Silver Lake is a movie that I know has issues, but cast a spell on me and also felt like a direct commentary on toxic masculinity at times, though I wonder if the lead character in that grows in any way by the end. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood ultimately plays like an indulgent fairy-tale from someone who needed to spend a lot more time cutting the fat and trying to give its audience more than just another alternate history revenge story. Part of me does wonder if Inglorious Bastards never existed, would my reaction be the same? But that’s not a question that can’t be answered in this timeline. In this reality, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood does very little for a lot of this film and eventually, I wished for a couple of other screenwriters to take a flamethrower to the choices made in the final act. However, I’m open to watching this again with a lot of different interpretations out there in mind.

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James Laczkowski