By Preston Wilder
I have doubts – serious doubts – about Quentin Tarantino’s new film, but I guess I got lucky: I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on a double bill with Red Joan, a based-on-fact British drama (directed by Trevor Nunn, better known for his work with the RSC) about a nice old lady who’s accused of having been a Soviet spy – and Red Joan is so staid, so inert and ‘respectably’ lifeless, it really brought home what a wonderful moment-by-moment filmmaker Tarantino continues to be, even as each new film confirms that he has nothing (or nothing very interesting) to say. I checked my watch several times in Red Joan; I was riveted throughout Hollywood’s 161 minutes – and was actually a bit surprised when the movie ended ‘so soon’. If anything, I was still waiting for it to get started.
That, of course, is a back-handed compliment – and there is indeed a slightly pointless feel to this LA-set period piece, kicking off in February 1969 with a TV reporter interviewing actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double-cum-best-buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is a has-been, drinking and smoking too much (everyone smokes; it’s 1969) and given to rants about “hippies” and his own obsolescence; he’s reduced to playing heavies on TV, but hopes that his new neighbours on Cielo Drive might help his career. Alas, we the audience know that’s unlikely to happen – because the new neighbours are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the real-life actress famously murdered by the ‘Manson family’ on August 9, 1969, i.e. just a few months later.
Real life lurks around the corner – but this is a movie world (Tarantino is, of course, a world-class cinephile), decked out in posters and theatre marquees. It’s not just a question of a few well-placed references, more like production design gone creatively nuts. Largely forgotten film titles – Joanna, Three in the Attic – stand guard like sentinels, looking down on the action; much of the film is composed of clips from Rick’s greatest hits, or the episode of Lancer he’s supposedly making. (Tarantino gets carried away, as usual: images like a high-angle wide shot of a Western saloon look far too elaborate for 60s TV.) Rick is an actor – and acting is the film’s true subject, a reminder of the most insane thing about QT, viz. that this incredible writer-director secretly fancies himself as an actor (at which he’s incredibly bad). He’s like the clown who wants to play Hamlet – or indeed ‘Mr. Brown’, the weakest link in Reservoir Dogs.
Acting – says a scarily assured little girl – is pursuit of perfection. Acting is magic; Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) watches herself on a cinema screen, notes the audience chuckling behind her, and puts up her feet in perfect contentment. Acting doesn’t just replace real life, it improves on it. Everyone’s acting in Hollywood, starting with the Jewish agent (Al Pacino) who insists his surname is ‘Schwarzs’, not ‘Schwartz’; the hippies’ greatest crime is perhaps to disrespect acting, calling actors “phony” and belittling onscreen carnage compared to the real-life carnage going in in Vietnam. One might think they have a point – but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film about films, and almost wilfully apolitical. Those who hoped QT might touch on the whole #MeToo thing (given his long association with Harvey Weinstein) will be especially disappointed: not much attempt is made to complicate the homicidal women at the climax (though it’s still surprising, for other reasons), and a sub-plot about Cliff having killed his wife, which seems ripe for some clever twist, gets nothing at all – beyond a brief flashback that implies she was ‘asking for it’.
Not much attempt is made to complicate anything here. Tarantino’s been simplistic for years now, he’s just using hippies to replace the racists in Django Unchained. Cliff the rugged stuntman is the film’s undoubted hero (Pitt is suitably charming) – but the girl isn’t totally wrong when she calls him a fascist (he’s a proper tyrant with his dog, for one thing) and the film seems unable to work in that nuance. He’s certainly a less intriguing character than ‘Stuntman Mike’ in Death Proof, made by a younger, better Tarantino 12 years ago.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is finally a bit disappointing – but it is what it is, which is mostly delightful. Being a film buff helps, obviously (I chuckled at lines like “This ain’t a f**kin’ Andrew McLaglen picture!”, or a spaghetti Western with the title Kill Me Quick Ringo, Said the Gringo) – but this is primarily a case of quiet melancholy sprinkled with cool bits, and anyone should be able to relate to that. Rick frets about getting old and useless (that’s the melancholy) – but the camera lingers on a drive through LA, and a girl’s suntanned body, and a party by the pool with young people dancing, and a wildly romantic montage of the city’s neon signs coming on as darkness falls. Cool enough? Cooler than Red Joan, anyway.
DIRECTED BY Quentin Tarantino
STARRING Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
US 2019 161 mins