I have not been this disappointed in a movie theater since I saw Luke Skywalker throw his lightsaber over his shoulder in “The Last Jedi.” Eventually, I grew to appreciate that film and the subversive techniques of writer/director Rian Johnson. But I can’t imagine that I’ll ever appreciate “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or what Quentin Tarantino was trying to communicate with his film. I hated this movie, and that hurts to write as a longtime Tarantino fan.
First and foremost, I thought this movie was boring, and the characters were not well developed. Tarantino has made slow-burning movies before. They are some of his best films. For instance, “Inglourious Basterds” was slow-burning but engaging. In that film, Tarantino introduced us to many characters, and each was more interesting than the next. Our devotion to the characters and their long dialogue scenes also paid off when he gave us dramatic action scenes.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” features many characters too but none of them are consistently interesting.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a disillusioned cowboy actor named Rick Dalton who is only hired for stints as the lowly outlaw on TV shows. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, his stuntman with a past that makes him difficult to hire.
The trailer for this film could have shown a picture of each of the actors and those brief descriptions, and I still would have purchased a ticket. I’m a Tarantino diehard, and I was excited to see a film that featured 1960s Hollywood with Tarantino’s direction. Unfortunately, this film is a boring tour of that period and not much more.
Tarantino doesn’t do anything exciting with this duo of fantastic performers. The screenplay is a day-to-day journey in the life of these two friends and then a sudden leap forward in time. This concept could have been great, but their lives aren’t that appealing, even though they work in Hollywood. If these sequences with DiCaprio and Pitt are boring for a reason, the meaning is lost on me.
I’m not saying that “day in the life of” stories can’t work. Tarantino proved they can with “Pulp Fiction,” but that is a much tighter film than “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” I also think that the camaraderie of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson is more palpable in that film.
The dialogue and relationship don’t pop as well between DiCaprio and Pitt because there is a power imbalance. Dalton is Booth’s boss, and Tarantino would like us to believe that these two men are as close as brothers, but it’s hard to believe that relationship when one is running errands for the other.
In the background of the film is Sharon Tate, a woman who was violently murdered by the Manson Family. She’s not particularly relevant in the plot, but Tarantino writes her in as an intriguing parallel to DiCaprio’s character.
While Dalton is on his way out the door on Hollywood backlots, Tate is becoming a scene-stealing star. This parallel is best seen in two scenes. In hers, she is delighted to hear audiences laughing at her antics in a comedy starring Dean Martin. In his, Dalton is overwhelmed when his agent tells him that he essentially is a has-been.
I think the intention was to make this parallel a sticking point in the movie-goer’s mind, but Tarantino clouds it with unnecessarily long scenes that distract from his main characters’ development.
We don’t need to see Dalton acting in scene after scene after scene. Most people will understand from the beginning that this is a man who is past his prime but trying to stay in the limelight. And we certainly don’t need to see Cliff’s prolonged interactions with the Manson family or him driving through the Hollywood Hills. So much driving and so many Hollywood nostalgia shots. Get on with it, Quentin, and give us more of Tate’s perspective.
Tarantino is passionate about what happened to Tate and is using “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to unleash his anger, but it all comes off as disingenuous. He focuses his movie on two fictional characters, who are despicable and annoying, rather than on Tate.
Then there is the end of the film. I won’t spoil what happens in it because Tarantino has stated that he doesn’t want reviewers to. However, I will tell you that it is one of the most grotesque acts of violence I’ve seen on screen.
Critics applauded the old Quentin for his genius depiction of violence. But he was praised not for what he showed but what he didn’t. This Tarantino is sick of not showing the gory details. He wants to disturb us, but I’m not entirely sure why. He may want us to look at the folly of applauding violence. If that is his message, it arrives too late from a filmmaker who has made a career out of stylized violence.
Tarantino is a great filmmaker, but “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is too long, ugly and boring. He needs to start making tighter films before Paramount green-lights a four-hour “Star Trek” slog because I can’t handle this disappointment again.