As I left tonight’s screening of Quentin Tarantino’s latest, and ninth, movie, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, I have to admit about the only thing I could think was ‘has Tarantino finally jumped the shark?’
Despite that, I didn’t come away thinking I hadn’t enjoyed it and I certainly had a good enough time to feel like I wanted to give the film another watch and spend another three hours with these characters.
After an amusing pre-credits sequence where we meet western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) the film lands us in Hollywood (and it feels very much like Hollywood rather than the wider Los Angeles) in February 1969 with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) moving into their house on Cielo Drive.
It transpires they are neighbours of Dalton and, while we keep up with the lives of the real life famous couple, the story keeps its focus very much on the western star and his stuntman.
With this Tarantino immerses us in the world of the pilot TV shows and the fringes of mainstream Hollywood, something he has demonstrated an obsession with in the past.
We follow Dalton through the production of a new show, a meeting with his agent Marvin Schwartz (another real life figure, here played by Al Pacino) and eventually his work in spaghetti westerns in Italy, which also references real life filmmakers and movies, another of Tarantino’s well know cinematic loves.
Within all of this we get something of a tour de force performance from DiCaprio that takes a while to reveal itself.
When we first see him he’s trying to maintain a facade of the action hero he once was but it’s clear his career is on the slide and he puts this across brilliantly, albeit through Tarantino’s usual caricature like filter.
In fact one of the most successful scenes in the film in this regard comes when Dalton encounters his eight year old co-star on a TV show and she manages to reveal this insecure side of Dalton which DiCaprio plays excellently.
As what feels like a subplot to this, appropriate given how the character’s relative positions in the system are shown, are the actions of Booth.
At first these feel more flippant as he gets into a scrap on set with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and encounters members of what looks to be a fictionalised version of the Manson family leading to one of the most successfully tense moments of the whole film.
Pitt’s performance, while more laid back, is certainly a fine counterpart to DiCaprio’s and the pair lead the film very well as Tarantino takes us on what feels like an evocative, if somewhat loose and directionless, journey through Hollywood in 1969.
Through all of this things seem to be lacking something of the flair Tarantino usually shows — while there are many of his usual tropes it’s as if even he is bored of them (and his thing for the feet of his female stars is certainly in hyperdrive).
That is until we approach the end of what could loosely be called the second act and head into the third where we get a few moments where the tension cranks up and the usual Tarantino reappears and is very much back as we head for the climax, but I won’t go into too much detail there other than to say its unexpected and certainly highlights the fairytale feeling suggested by the title.
As the credits rolled the thing that really struck me, particularly when compared to other films by Tarantino which are in many ways a genre of their own, is that I couldn’t really tell what the director was trying to do here.
With others it’s clear we are seeing his take on a style or a reinvention of something past, here though I didn’t find that, it almost seemed like Tarantino was trying to make a point about something, possibly the recent issues in the real Hollywood that have particularly effected his past patrons the Weinsteins, but if so it never really does this properly leaving the film something of a flawed shaggy dog story.
This maybe fits its title as it’s something of a Hollywood fairy tale, but it makes for an uneven experience that, while not entirely unsatisfying, certainly seems to be missing something crucial when compared to his past work.