Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Dance Dance Prostitution
With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood being his ninth feature film as writer and director and a career just shy of the three-decade mark, you should probably know what to expect from a Quentin Tarantino film. Amongst all of the usual Tarantino trademarks of memorable performances, long strings of dialogue, a questionable amount of dancing, the inclusion of several shots of barefoot women, interior car sequences, and a relentless tidal wave of vulgarity that drowns the audience in a sea of sharp expletives, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood lacks the one element that truly makes a Tarantino film worthwhile: coherent storytelling.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood should be great based on its cast alone. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of his more complex performances as television star-turned-infrequent movie star Rick Dalton. Rick made a name for himself in a western TV series called Bounty Law. Rick burned that bridge when he tried to make the jump to movies and failed. Now he only seems to get work as the TV villain. Rick gets an opportunity in Rome to star in Italian spaghetti westerns and reluctantly accepts. Rick is an alcoholic that struggles with a stutter when he speaks. He has low self-esteem and questions every decision he makes. The scene where he flubs his lines followed by his angry outburst in his trailer is extraordinary. He’s also the one person on the planet who seems to hate hippies more than Eric Cartman.
Brad Pitt portrays Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth. Cliff is a Vietnam War veteran who may or may not have (but probably did) kill his wife without any repercussions. Cliff hardly works as a stunt double anymore and mostly makes his living driving Rick around and doing various odd jobs for him. Cliff is the exact opposite of Rick. Rick lives in the Hollywood Hills in a roomy luxurious house with a pool and an extravagant view. Cliff lives in a trailer by a drive-in theater, eats macaroni and cheese for dinner, and has amazing chemistry with his pitbull Brandy. Cliff seems like a handy and capable guy, but he’s also extremely blunt. His to-the-point demeanor keeps Rick’s wilder antics in check the majority of the time. Cliff doesn’t exactly babysit Rick and allows him to live his own life, but he’s the one to give Rick the “you’re better than that,” kind of pep talk after it's over.
One of the things mentioned in the film by Kurt Russell (he plays Randy and does the voiceover as the narrator) is that Rick and Cliff share this bond that is practically as deep as a brotherhood yet lacks the commitment of a marriage. Their bond is the backbone of the film and it’s interesting because they both seem like half-decent people. Cliff may have killed someone and Rick beats himself up harder than anyone else could, but they’re both hard-working individuals who put everything into their work and they have each other’s backs through thick and thin. Their bond is almost wholesome to the minuscule extent Tarantino will allow.
Brad Pitt’s chemistry with Brandy is also quite entertaining. There’s something comical about seeing Cliff rummage through his pantry filled with nothing but cans of dog food only to pull out two specific cans; one rat-flavored and one raccoon-flavored. He opens the cans with a manual can opener, tips them over in mid-air after removing their lids, and lets gravity guide that slop into whatever is designated as a food bowl that particular evening in a sickening PLOP! And a meaty splash that overflows onto the kitchen floor tiles. Cliff and Brandy seem almost as close as Cliff and Rick. They have this partnership that is easy to detect as soon as they’re on-screen together.
Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee impression isn’t totally flawless, but it is fairly excellent regardless. Moh is Korean and Bruce Lee was Chinese-American, so it’s an intriguing fit that works way better than you expect. The scene Moh has with Pitt as Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth have a physical encounter is an entertaining highlight of the film. The outrageous violence you’ve come to expect in a Tarantino film isn’t present in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood until the final scene and it is a glorious display of dog biting, face pummeling, and flame-throwing mayhem. If Cliff Booth hasn’t already established himself as a certified badass through the first two and a half hours, those last ten minutes certainly allow him to obtain that title with ease.
The unfortunate aspect of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is that everything doesn’t really come together in a satisfying way. You’ve got a washed-up actor trying to regain the spotlight, a stunt double struggling to find work and make a living despite his troublesome reputation, and the Charles Manson stuff with Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) living next door to Rick and Cliff’s time at the Spahn Movie Ranch with the Manson Family. In 1968, Tate and four others were murdered in the home she shared with Polanski by members of the Manson Family while being eight-and-a-half months pregnant. It’s a horrendous statistic that puts a different perspective on the ending if you didn’t know beforehand. The Manson inclusion mostly feels like an afterthought that isn’t ever taken seriously.
So many recognizable names are a part of the cast and everyone outside of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are basically a waste. Margot Robbie has a few moments that mostly reside in her reacting to films starring Sharon Tate in a movie theater. Tate seems to represent this pure and positive light in the film while Rick and Cliff experience the uglier aspects of the Tarantino-skewed late 1960s. Robbie downright glows during that movie theater sequence with a bubbly and contagious attitude, but doesn’t do much else over the course of the film.
Read More From Reelrundown
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels longer than its 141-minute duration. It drags so often in between its enjoyable moments and seems to purposely lag during every dialogue-heavy sequence that is just talking without any sort of payoff. Tarantino’s attention to the music of whatever era he’s depicting has always been a staple in his films, but it is on the verge of annoyance here. The dancing in the film feels like an excuse to stretch out the story that much longer for no other reason other than to blatantly rub the audience’s nose in the time period.
Not One Of Tarantino's Finest
There are some masterful elements to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that shouldn’t be overlooked. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick F’ing Dalton sequence is explosively brilliant and Brad Pitt has this abrasive charm as Cliff Booth. It’s difficult to make the argument that Quentin Tarantino has original stories still worth telling at this point in his career, though, since this suffers from incoherent progression and a reasonable purpose for why we should care about these characters. At one point in the film, Rick tells Cliff with tears streaming down his face and this unhealthy cough full of cancerous phlegm, “It’s official old buddy. I’m a has-been.” Maybe this is how Tarantino feels about himself now that he’s nearing the end of his filmmaking career. That struggle to find meaning and a welcome audience for something he used to care so deeply about but may have lost the passion for in recent years. He had a good run, but as it stands Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is overstuffed yet bland despite its two zesty leads.
© 2019 Chris Sawin
Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on July 29, 2019:
Logan, I mostly felt like Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, Sharon Tate, and the Manson Family material didn't really connect in a way that was satisfying. I've seen people say something like Rick's story kind of mirrors Sharon's in the sense that he's struggling to find satisfying work and Sharon wasn't recognized for the work she had already accomplished, but it felt disjointed to me.
While I still stand by the film feeling long, I don't necessarily know what I would want to cut from the film; maybe nothing. I'd rather have something inserted that brought everything together in a different way. I walked away from it feeling conflicted. I didn't really like or dislike it the film as a whole. It just felt sloppy to me, which is something I haven't really felt about a Tarantino film before.
Michael115 on July 29, 2019:
That's what is great about movies. Not everyone is going to see the movie and think the same way. My dad didn't like the movie but I thought it was a blast because the two leads were interesting. Would I watch it again? Maybe one more time but Margot Robbie's character knocks this movie down a peg, even if her role is significant at the end. I feel like if some scenes were cut out of this film and replaced with Sharon Tate going on a drive with Cliff, just hanging out, then I would love this film. Still a good movie but a little bloated.
Logan Daniel Williamson on July 29, 2019:
I might be alone in this, but I did not mind the run time. In fact, I welcomed it. Every scene and shot had me entranced. I also think to butcher this film of some of its content would be a disservice to the ending and purpose of the film.
Michael115 on July 25, 2019:
Good review! The film does drag and there were scenes that should have been cut but the overall movie was a blast to sit through.