Two and half hours in, I’m still waiting for the movie to begin.
I’ve laughed at loser hero Rick Dalton played by Leonardo DiCaprio as he flubs his lines as a dopey cowboy. Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate has dazzled in a way that is respectful and fun. There are all those cool Quentin Tarantino cutaways that are often narrated without saying anything at all. And I’m thrilled by the recreation of an iconic time period in Hollywood history.
But too often during these scenes I’m pondering: what is this movie about? Why must I watch Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth drive a car down Hollywood Boulevard blasting 60s pop music? Is there a point to all those Bounty Law television spots — obvious spoofs to classics like Gunsmoke — or is Tarantino just making love to Hollywood?
In the past, Tarantino has demonstrated an amazing talent for creating entertaining stories in iconic historical periods: a group of international underdogs plot to kill Hitler in Nazi-occupied France in the 1940s; a freed slave partners with a dentist to find the man who took his wife in 1850s Antebellum South. These are stories with biting satire and violence only imaginable by Tarantino. They’re brilliant.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not. It lacks that twisted fairy tale magic so crucial to Tarantino’s past works. It is an ode to an era but one devoid of any substance or real point. Talented actors amuse us with clever dialogue and situations that function more like anecdotes than scenes in a movie. They cannot carry it all.
Tarantino’s best films throw us into the middle of a mystery and hold us until it is solved. Or, we’re given a hero with such a problem that it becomes nearly Shakespearean when they must grow to solve it. There is no growth from any of the characters in this film. Similarly, there’s just not enough tension to test whatever it is these characters must go through. Mostly, they plod around.
It’s never dull but it’s never enough.
Underdeveloped characters aren’t always bad. Like Wes Anderson, Tarantino’s bold style often mocks those industry words like “agency” or “hero’s journey” in favor of chapter-based episodes containing coincidence and irony.
But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never reaches the same level of irony that I loved so much in Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds. It comes close. My favorite moment occurred when Pitt’s character wandered into Manson’s hippie haven. Just minutes ago, we watched a suited-up cowboy on television wander into a similar western town crawling with miscreants. And later, when DiCaprio’s Dalton reads a book on set, he summarizes it in an ironic way that is both funny and sad for his character.
I wish there were more moments like that.
Mostly, I miss Tarantino’s chapters, and those high-octane punctuations of style and violence that were clever enough to not be distasteful. Maybe that’s not appropriate for this film. Still, it’s very obvious that the film alludes to the 1969 Manson Murders.
So why does it feel like the film dances around the event without ever actually utilizing it in an interesting way? What does a film about a washed-up actor and his stunt double have to do with that terrible tragedy?
I don’t know what has happened to Quentin Tarantino, but I haven’t been invigorated by any of his films in over a decade.
Maybe it’s the absence of Sally Menke, Tarantino’s longtime editor who passed away suddenly in 2010 in a terrible accident. That’s an awful thing to suggest, but more and more and I’m interested less and less in Tarantino’s obsessions and his characters that prattle on endlessly only to be interrupted by cutaways that are more obnoxious than they informative.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has far too many Hollywood recreations that are usually entertaining but always go nowhere. I was often reminded while watching of a much similar love letter to Hollywood: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!
And like that film, a search for its meaning left me blank.