Quentin Tarantino is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’s been adamant in his plans to retire after making 10 films and he just released his ninth feature. He’s talked about his planned retirement so much that he’d likely be mocked if he backs out on it. But if he does step down, there’d certainly be a gaping hole in the world of filmmaking without one of its best and most popular auteurs. And as cool and unbothered as he might look on the outside, Tarantino seems to be feeling the weight of his impending retirement. When the end is near, one tends to think back to the beginning and how everything started. For Tarantino, he looked back on the things that influenced him to become such a devoted student to the art of cinema. Though it’s more than movies that made Tarantino who he is, it’s an entire era of pop culture.
Tarantino would’ve been a month shy of his sixth birthday in February 1969, but he’d certainly thrive in his vision of that era of Hollywood. TV shows featured plenty of shootouts and macho dialogue while Paul Revere & the Raiders blasts out of every Cadillac cruising down Hollywood Boulevard. Westerns were king on the small and big screens, Roman Polanski was a year removed from Rosemary’s Baby and cigarettes were as common as sundresses. In Tarantino’s mind, 1969 was the golden age of culture. But all things come to an end. Whether that be his run as a writer/director or the era of 60s entertainment, both things are central to the vibe of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Some things are at an end, like the careers of TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick’s stuck jumping from show to show playing the villain of the week and chugging margaritas to make the days easier. Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in theater coasting through life and unphased by the changing times. The ragged duo lean on each other as they go through their own personal crises, but Rick in particular feels more worthless as the days go on and doesn’t know where his life is going.
The same can be said for Tarantino and his new movie, sadly. For all the finesse and style that he expertly displays on screen, Once Upon a Time feels unfinished. It’s not so much missing a point but has one, yet doesn’t reach it in its lengthy two hours and 41 minutes. Rick and Cliff are men who are almost out of time, not getting as much as they wanted in the old days and being asked to change with the times. Tarantino has found himself in a similar situation: one of his chief financiers was publicly disgraced for atrocious behavior (that he apparently stood idly by while happening) and the actress who played one of his best characters called him out for being negligent with her safety on set. And that’s on top of the frequent debates people have about him regarding his treatment of female characters and usage of racial slurs in movies. So here he is, a legend in filmmaking facing the mortality of his career on the verge of leaving it all behind, using the things that inspired him to play out his own mid-life crisis. The set-up of Once Upon a Time was a near-perfect scenario for a fascinating, therapeutic experience of a man using his art to let go of his past hangups and set up the next (or even final) phase of his career. It was all right there…and he blew it.
Instead, Once Upon a Time is Tarantino hugging his security blanket of throwback style, sexual eye candy and pulp to stay in his comfort zone. It’s as if Tarantino shut his eyes and plugged his ears to imagine a fantasy better than the reality facing him, like a child trying to avoid a lecture from his parents. And it’s not just speculation because the material is blatantly there for Tarantino to dig deeper, especially in Rick’s storyline. Played with an amusing Southern droll by DiCaprio, Rick scoffs at an offer to go to make movies in Italy that would have him to leave the town he fought so hard to get into (before doing it anyway and it rejuvenating his career). He has a conversation with an eight-year-old girl (a delightful Julia Butters) where he breaks down at the realization of his old age. He even shrugs off his most famous scenes of glorious hyper-violence despite having a flame-thrower as a beloved memento. Rick is definitely a stand-in for Tarantino himself and yet with all of this set-up, the writer/director gives little catharsis through Rick’s story and keeps using the style of ‘69 as a crutch. That’s not even mentioning the purpose of Cliff’s character. Cruising through L.A. as Rick’s driver/handyman/hype man, Cliff feels like the man Tarantino wishes he could be. Someone who gets by in life relying on nothing but charm and cultural knowledge. He needs nothing more than a dog and a television as companions in his life, living behind the constant projections of films. Aside from that, Cliff feels like an empty vessel the director wishes he could embody. More disappointing is that Pitt brings nothing unique to Cliff. We know Pitt can play this character effortlessly as he’s done it time and time again, so he just coasts through scenes. The movie itself is similar, like a sports car with no engine
Which is a shame because Once Upon a Time has plenty of high-grade mechanics to make it run smooth. For one, it’s got the most high-profile cast of his entire career ranging from Hollywood legends (Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell) to modern-day stars (DiCaprio, Pitt, Margot Robbie) to reliable supporting actors (Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis) to a plethora of young starlets (Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith). But as with the themes of the movie, it’s a lot of ammunition that don’t leave the clips they’re in. There are a few standouts: Qualley makes for an alluring hippie dream girl that catches Cliff’s eye, while Fanning has an amusingly droll standoff with Pitt. Dern is in one scene, stuck in pajamas playing a cranky old man, and yet has more presence and impact than 90 percent of the supporting cast. That includes Robbie who, despite playing Sharon Tate months before she was infamously murdered, is useless in the final product and has little to no impact on the story proper. She represents the bright-eyed coming generation of Hollywood stars cut down by the darkest side of the flower generation. Too bad Tarantino takes that chance to do something with her story and jettisons it for a goofy, ultraviolet finale. It’s a wonder if Tate’s family was ever concerned about Sharon’s depiction here considering she’s nothing more than a spirit floating through Tarantino’s dream.
Again, this doesn’t take away from the craftsmanship Tarantino and his team put into the movie. The re-creation of Hollywood, from the cars to the clothes to the movie sets to the restaurants, is impeccable. His Hollywood is something truly lived in and detailed. The soundtrack is top-notch as well, maybe the best one of the man’s filmography with classics songs all following a consistent, breezy groove. That vibe is shared with the pacing of the movie, never rushed but never sluggish. It’s all laid out naturally without being forced on the audience. His pension for long takes of extended dialogue gets tiresome after a while, but mines a few gold nuggets here and there. All of those moments involve DiCaprio in one of the funniest performances he’s ever given. There’s of course the classic Leo charm that’s amazing never gotten stale in his near 30-year career, but the sense of Cliff having a mid-life crisis allows Leo to turn pathetic moments of emotional vulnerability into comedy gold. Even in the fake western show he’s acting in, DiCaprio remains compelling.
Now of course not all of Tarantino’s movies have had to make some kind of commentary on his status of life or the eras he depicts. He’s all about fantasy and the joys of fiction, that’s the entertainment of his films. But whether it’s because he blew a grand opportunity to do something self-reflexive or because there’s so much talent here given so little to do, Once Upon a Time ends up boring and hollow. It’s pretty on the outside but missing purpose. On the basis of sheer entertainment, all the atmosphere and style feels routine. As much as Tarantino has grown as a cultural craftsman, he’s starting to stagnate as a storyteller and covering his ass with style. His story is incomplete and missing a true punch to it, no matter how much he tries to distract audiences with a vibe. But let’s be optimistic. Let’s give one of the most unique storytellers of the last 25 years the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that if he’s bowing out after his next picture, he’ll send himself off with one of the best stories he’ll ever write. A man known for his shootouts and violence has to go out with a bang, right? He couldn’t have taken this and so many other experiences throughout his fame and learned nothing at the end of it all, right? He can’t stay in his deteriorating dreamland forever…….right?