The first notable problem with ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is that the soundtrack fails to pop the way we have come to expect from a Tarantino film. Of course the soundtrack is very evident and it informs much of the story, however the songs don't feel as carefully selected or as thoughtfully placed. Perhaps this is a symptom of having only seen the film once (maybe a premature judgement on my part). The film is in every sense a reversion to his earlier work, calling upon strong pop cultural references to drive its narrative, which is certainly cut from the same cloth as Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and where those films boasted an immediately arresting collection of songs, HOLLYWOOD isn't as hit-laden or ear-wiggy.
Other issues include an immodest amount of self-indulgence, unnecessary cameos and grading monologues. With its 1960's Hollywood setting, the scene is set for an eruption of Tarantino-gasms, and we wouldn't expect anything less, however he has indulged himself so much so that the average movie-goer will inevitably disengage from it's endless in-jokes, geeky film-speak and pop cultural intricacies. Suffice to say this is not as accessible as QT's previous work, but....
… it is definitely his BEST work since Jackie Brown. As a filmie with a decent grasp of film history and pop culture, I felt a kinship with the man and appreciated him speaking so deeply to a movie-lover like myself. I admit that I struggled at first. The first act is a slow burn and a meandering series of seemingly trivial encounters had me worried that he might not be able to push through his own hedonism. And then one important scene at the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch flips the story on its head and sends the film barrelling ahead at a million miles per hour, giving retrospective relevance to what had transpired previously.
Inspired by the real life partnership of Burt Reynolds and his stunt double Hal Needham (director of Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run) the film tells the story of Hollywood actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who find themselves navigating second-rate television guest appearances and lead roles in foreign films. Work is drying up and Dalton's fame is on the decline when a snappy movie producer, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers some sage words of advice and points him in the right direction. Dalton also happens to live next door to world-renowned director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbee) and when Booth's path coincidentally crosses with the Manson Family, the clock starts ticking down towards an inevitable climax on that most infamous night on Ceilo Drive.
This is a film jam-packed with surprises and I wouldn't dare reveal any of those tasty treats for you. What I will say is that Tarantino has captured the 1960's era with precision and filled his frame with absolute nostalgia. DiCaprio and Pitt both deliver what I will argue are the best performances of their respective careers, without any sense of rivalry or competitiveness. Each knows how good the other is and the camaraderie is strong. Robbie is a great addition to the cast as Sharon Tate, giving a mostly muted performance that relies on her character's sense of Hollywood wonderment. She gives a fabulous turn, with one particular scene in a movie-theatre (watching the real Sharon Tate on screen) serving as once of the films stand-out moments.
The cameos, while excessive, are generally good. Few of them grace the screen for longer than a minute but they all fit the bill nevertheless. Pacino does Pacino and Kurt Russell does Kurt Russell, while folks like Bruce Dern, Zoe Bell, Dekota Fanning, Luke Perry and Clifton Collins Jr contribute to a colossal ensemble of blink-and-you'll-miss-em players. Timothy Olyphant and Emile Hirsch are given slightly more screen time and it's great to see Hirsch back in the game following an unfortunate assault charge and subsequent blacklisting from Hollywood.
Some detractors have recently condemned Tarantino's supposed obsession with violence against women, to which needs addressing. I would argue that the number of men brutalised and killed throughout the course of his career far outweighs the number of women, and that those female characters he has subjected to extreme violence (The Bride in Kill Bill, Daisy Domergue in The Hateful 8 and the ladies of Death Proof... not to mention Alabama from True Romance) have turned said violence against their attackers. I would also argue that Tarantino writes strong female characters in his films and that his brand of filmmaking derives from an era of exploitation. We tend not to care when men are pulverised, mutilated and executed in QT's stories, and yet when women are hurt and then empowered it's outrageous and unacceptable. Give me a break! As for the specific violence against the women in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD... it's contextually satisfying and entirely justified. If you disagree then you need to reevaluate your own moral code. To go into specifics would be to ruin the fun and reveal too much...
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a return to that urban sensibility that put Tarantino on the map. It is also ambitious and gratuitous and all things that make him a cult figure. Were it not for the aforementioned foibles earlier in this review I would be inclined to declare the film an instant classic. It comes damn near close to being a perfect film, and yet misses the mark thanks to self indulgence and a stronger than usual overriding sense of egotism.