The Critic's Corner
August 12-18, 2019
By David Laprad
A strange thing happened as I watched “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” the new movie from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino: I grew sad.
That was strange because the only things I’ve felt while watching a Tarantino movie is admiration for his film craft, levity, due to his often clever and humorous dialogue, and boredom, due to his often self-indulgent and drawn out dialogue.
I’ve also been entertained while watching selections from Tarantino’s filmography, but generally find his work to be more intellectually and aesthetically engaging than I do fun. But I’ve never felt sad before.
It came as I realized Tarantino was telling the story about a moment in history not as it happened but as he perhaps wishes it happened. There’s a palpable sense of loss and wistful longing at the heart of “Once Upon a Time” that lingered with me long after seeing the movie.
“Once Upon a Time” is said to be Tarantino’s love letter to 1960s Hollywood. This is an apt description.
The movie takes place at the end of the decade, on the eve of the Tate murders. Tarantino marks this date as the dividing point between the turbulent years of protest and reform in the 60s and the growing commercialism and conservatism of the 70s. (A clip of the outside lights being turned on at a Taco Bell is one of the most telling shots in the film.)
Tarantino must also see this point in history as the dying gasp of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This notion is depicted through two of the movie’s primary characters: actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman, Cliff Booth.
Played with award-winning finesse by Leonardo DiCaprio, Dalton is the former star of the television western, “Bounty Law” (which seems to be patterned after “Wanted Dead or Alive”). His light is fading, though, as the kind of leading man he portrayed goes out of style and he tries unsuccessfully to transition to film.
Brad Pitt portrays Booth, Dalton’s long-time best friend and stuntman. Pitts’ performance is more nuanced and dialed back than DiCaprio’s but no less terrific. If there’s one thing about “Once Upon a Time” that’s consistently great, it’s the acting.
This is especially true of Margot Robbie’s radiant turn as actress Sharon Tate.
Take the scene in which Tate attends a public screening of “The Wrecking Crew.” After settling into her seat, she looks nervously around the theater, uncertain about how the audience will react to her performance. After everyone laughs at one of her bits, she relaxes and enjoys the moment.
All this is communicated through expressions that are as bright as a star. I’m now convinced that Robbie’s luminescent smile is the thing that’s beaming up at John Travolta when he opens the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”
Robbie’s performance is the kind that makes one long for a bygone era. Tarantino seems to have a soft spot for this era, too, though it’s not always evident that he knows how to express this desire.
“Once Upon a Time” is filled with great scenes, each of which has value in and of itself. For example, convinced that the hippies living on the ranch where Dalton once shot “Bounty Hunter” are taking advantage of the farm’s elderly owner, Booth insists on seeing his friend.
Tarantino is a master at stirring fear and dread in an audience, which by now is all-too familiar with his bursts of horrific violence and uses this scene to skillfully tighten the noose around his viewers’ neck.
However, no matter how enjoyable each individual scene is, “Once Upon A Time” has a meandering, aimless quality that becomes frustrating as it ambles toward the end of its nearly three-hour running time.
The astonishing final scene is worth the wait and fully redeems “Once Upon a Time,” but I believe the haul to get there can make even the most patient moviegoers antsy.
That said, if I were put in charge of trimming the movie down, I wouldn’t know which bits to remove because they all have something to offer, even if it’s just pure entertainment. (Tarantino clearly had a lot of fun applying his directing style to old genres, such as the spaghetti western, and in many scenes, that translates into a lot of fun for the audience.)
In the end, “Once Upon a Time” is unexpectedly touching, especially since Tarantino has always struck me as having a cool detachment from emotion.
He’s also known for snappy banter and graphic carnage, so for him to include several scenes of one or two people driving across long stretches of L.A. without saying a word is a revelation. Perhaps the loss he feels left him without the words he needed to express himself.
It’s a good thing, then, that Tarantino is still a master of the language of motion pictures.
See it later.
Rated R for language, graphic violence, drug use and sexual references.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.