Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino’s swansong

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – and it’s one you’d better make sure you watch because he’s only making one more and that’s it, he’s done. His legacy of ten films will be there for us to watch but no more will be made, verily the movie gods have spoken (until he gets bored and comes out of retirement).

Now this used to make me sad, but in recent years it’s bothered me less. With each film he releases I end up enjoying them in parts, but don’t come out of the cinema fired up the way I used to – perhaps not since Kill Bill have I been blown away by one of his films. Yes, his stories all have had standout scenes and moments, but they just haven’t engaged me scene for scene the way his early ones did. His great vengeance and furious anger has dissapated.

The problem lies in the edit

Since his editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010 (she edited all of his films up until Inglorious Basterds) his storytelling has never been as tight. Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich was reportedly so good because he inherently understood the editing process; indeed, he was a brilliant editor in his own right. This is something Tarantino lacks and no one is strong enough to stand up to him in this regard, be it an editor or a producer.

As a result Once Upon a Time in Hollywood clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes. If you add trailers we’re talking 3 hours plus – and this is the case every time you see one of his films these days. Add to this that I’ve read recently he wants to release an even longer version. If this doesn’t tell us he completely believes his own hype, then I don’t know what does.

Once upon a time…

Edit aside, the story here is an interesting one. It focuses on TV leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose star power is fading. A man trying to revive his career, but in general only has his stunt man and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in his corner, supporting his choices and acting as kind of a big brother. Cliff drives Rick around trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. They prop each other up and the dynamic between these two alpha males of Hollywood is the beating heart of this story.

Pitt is all easygoing charm, much like his character Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven. DiCaprio is tense, twitchy and unhinged, drawing on his characters from Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island and a host of others. It’s a delightful pairing and their chemistry sings in each scene. You just want to spend time watching them hang out and shoot the breeze.

A love letter to Sharon

Ahead of the film’s release many expected this story to focus on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the days leading up to her murder, but it doesn’t. The slight of hand Tarantino has played with the film’s marketing has frustrated some who have written about feeling cheated. They’ve been given minimal Tate (and therefore minimal Robbie). Yes, she’s a presence throughout, but her story is only very loosely connected to Dalton’s, which is the main one we follow.

Tarantino has written about how he just wanted to spend time with her, celebrating Tate as a person and an artist. This comes across, but is does feel like a waste of Robbie and we still don’t hugely get to know Tate as a person from this film. Robbie is an Oscar-winner and could have brought so much more to the part, had she been given more to work with.

There are things to love

Despite the baggy run time and the strangely languid pace of storytelling there are still many things to love in this film. I mean, you’ve got Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie as the leads – three beautiful humans and all powerhouse actors. Pitt’s laidback charisma shines through in every scene. DiCaprio has played a bad guy for Tarantino before in Django Unchained and, in a sequence in this film, he plays the bad guy again, but not in the way you might think. It’s rather inspired. People forget how good he is at comedy.

And Robbie, whilst not having a great deal to do, drifts through the film as perhaps a symbol of innocence, beauty and hope for the future. It’s a joy to watch her dance and smile on screen. I just wish she had been more integral to the A plot story.

So, all in all, this film for me sits about mid-teir Tarantino. It looks beautiful and there were a few standout scenes and moments, but the issue I had was, like his last three, it’s overlong and drifts rather than engages me in the story and the characters.

Maybe some day someone will release a tighter edit of this film. I’d get behind that. In the meantime we have one more to go, I for one am most curious about what his final film will be. I hope he burns out rather than fades away as a director.

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