I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt shares a couple of scenes with a very obedient pit bull and each time before they eat, Pitt’s stuntman character Cliff Booth makes his canine co-star wait patiently until both of their meals have been prepared. All the while, the hungry pup licks his jowls in anticipation of a nice sloppy reward. I sat through writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s overly long new film with a similar eagerness. Unfortunately, what I wound up with after two hours and forty minutes were only a few tasty cinematic scraps.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are two of the biggest and best actors working today. It’s genuinely shocking that they haven’t been paired up on screen before now. Regardless, their work in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood lives up to anything you might have imagined from such a legendary coupling.
DiCaprio gives his most dialed in performance yet as Rick Dalton, a former 1950’s television star who struggled to land the leap from the small screen to the big screen and now faces his own fading stardom while Hollywood transitions out of its golden age. Whether wallowing in the self-pity of being relegated to jobbing to younger stars as the “villain of the week” or basking in the tear-soaked elation of his peers’ praises, DiCaprio goes for and nails every moment. I want to shine the spotlight right quick on a heartfelt exchange between DiCaprio and the young Julia Butters, who is a revelation.
Always at Rick’s side is his loyal friend and trusty stunt double Cliff Booth. Cliff happily fills the roles of chauffeur, repair man, cheerleader and whatever else Rick needs in the moment. Don’t get it twisted, though. There’s more to Cliff than moccasins and a loose Hawaiian button-up. He’s far and away the more interesting of the two, a fact Tarantino gradually clues us in on through occasional snippets of surprising backstory. We learn the rest of what we need to know about Cliff through Pitt’s physicality and confident demeanor.
As great as DiCaprio is here, Pitt steals the show despite playing the more rigid character. In a Tarantino film with kinetic, raw dialogue and comically over-the-top violence, Pitt consistently got the most laughs out of me simply with the looks on his face. He says so much by saying so little. The only drawback with Pitt’s Cliff is that he’s so magnetic that the rest of the film drags whenever he’s not on screen, which is sadly what happens for a significant chunk of the middle act.
As he’s done with some of his previous films, Tarantino uses Once Upon a Time to explore alternate versions of real-world events. This time it’s the grizzly 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child and the four guests staying with her at her Hollywood Hills home on Cielo Dr… Right next door to Rick Dalton. Margot Robbie practically glides across the screen, radiating whimsy and grace in a portrayal of Tate that’s stunningly transformative. It’s all the more disappointing then that she hasn’t much to do aside from partying to Paul Revere and the Raiders. In fact, she has so little to do with the narrative that I failed to see the sense in building Hollywood around her murder the way I saw the sense in centering Inglorious Basterds around Hitler’s assassination or Django Unchained around a slave rebellion.
Rich production value lends credence to Tarantino’s nostalgia-laden love letter to 1969 Los Angeles. Every corner of every frame is plastered with old-timey detail that pulls you further into the world of the film, at least initially. After a while it occurred to me that most of the movies, shows, and music that inhabited almost every scene were not actually popular back in 1969. It’s as if Tarantino just wants to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure 1960’s pop culture. Worse yet, this self-indulgence has a tendency to spill over into the editing and dialogue, needlessly inflating an already stuffed runtime.
At its core, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a hangout film about friendship and whenever the lead friends were on screen together, or at least whenever Cliff’s present, I dug it. When they’re not, the film sags and you may find yourself checking your watch as I did a couple times (do people still wear watches?). Adding insult to injury is a rather quick and unsatisfying climax. If you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino films then chances are you will find at least a handful of things to appreciate here. If you’re looking to start getting into the filmmaker’s work, you best look elsewhere.
⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2 (out of five)
Have you had a chance yet to check out Once Upon a Time in Hollywood yet? If so, what did you think? Is it one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films yet? Or were you more disappointed like me? Sound off in the comments below and share your thoughts!