“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, the ninth work of Quentin Tarantino, wants to be a leisurely nostalgic tale about a bygone era of Hollywood, and I appreciate that to some degree, but I often could not help but feel rather distant to what was presented on the screen. While it is fairly engaging in terms of mood and details, the movie did not particularly excite or enthrall me mainly due to its inherent storytelling deficiency, and that made me more aware of its several notable weak spots during my viewing.
The story, which is set in Hollywood, 1969, begins with the introduction of a washed-out actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). While he was once one of the most popular movie stars in the town during the 1950s, Dalton’s career has been seriously going down during last several years, and now he is usually demanded to play guest roles in a number of TV drama series. As becoming more aware of getting older day by day with no bright future, he often feels insecure and miserable, and, not so surprisingly, that frequently drives him to drinking.
In case of Booth, he has also been going through his own career downturn since a certain incident which made him shunned by many other people in Hollywood, but he does not seem to mind that much while doing many other things for Dalton besides working as his stunt double. When his another day with Dalton is over, he goes back to his small shabby residence located near a drive-in theater, and we see how he spends his private time along with his pit bull, which gives us a small amusing moment as it patiently waits for Booth to prepare its dinner as well as his.
In the meantime, the movie also pays considerable attention to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a real-life actress who was married to Roman Polanski around that time. After coming back to her residence which happens to be right next to Dalton’s, she and her husband soon go to an evening party full of various figures including Steve McQueen, and they cheerfully throw themselves into fun and excitement just like many others around them.
As these three main characters go through the next day respectively during its second act, Tarantino’s screenplay doles out small and big episodic moments one by one, and some of them are wonderful while others are not so good in comparison. I enjoyed an unexpectedly humorous moment between Dalton and a precocious child performer who turns out to be a lot more serious about acting to our amusement, and I also liked a sweet, poignant scene where Tate watches her movie along with audiences at a local movie theater, but I was not amused by the silly fight scene between Booth and Bruce Lee, which is not funny at all and actually downright embarrassing in my trivial opinion.
In the meantime, the movie slowly injects some tension into the screen through a group of young people who initially seem to be innocuous hippie girls but eventually turn out to be associated with Charles Manson. At one point, Booth happens to take one of these girls to a remote ranch where she and her colleagues live, and the mood becomes a bit tense when Booth attempts to meet the owner of the ranch as being watched by these girls. I will not go into details into what happens during the final act of the movie, but I can tell you instead that there are several violent moments which are delivered as skillfully as we can expect from a Tarantino film.
However, to be frank with you, I observed these and other things in the film without much enthusiasm. While I was considerably entertained by its vivid, authentic period atmosphere and details thanks to its first-rate crew members including cinematographer Robert Richardson, I also often noticed its rather flat storytelling and thin characterization, and I must point out that many of characters in the film are not as edgy or interesting or colorful as those memorable ones in Tarantino’s previous films.
Anyway, the three main cast members of the film are suitably cast in their respective roles. While Leonardo DiCaprio, who looks a little relaxed now after he finally won an Oscar for “The Revenant” (2015), is effective during several nice comic scenes including the one where his character struggles to deliver correct lines in front of the camera, Brad Pitt ably complements his co-star well with his understated performance, and Margot Robbie is also fine as another substantial part of the film. In case of the various supporting performers in the film including Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis, Brenda Vaccaro, Lena Dunham, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins Jr., Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen, James Remar, and Al Pacino, they merely fill their small spots as much as required, but the special mention must go to young performer Julia Butters, who effortlessly steals the show during her few scenes with DiCaprio.
In conclusion, I do not think “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is as great as some critics said, but I was not bored at least during its 161-minute running time, and I came to reflect on its weak and strong aspects for a while after watching it at last night. It is two or three steps below Tarantino’s better works such as “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), but it is still an admirable work with a number of goodies to be appreciated, so I recommend it with some reservation.