This review originally ran when Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Twenty-five years after Quentin Tarantino won the Palme d’Or for Pulp Fiction, he is back at Cannes with his latest film – and nothing at the 2019 Festival has been so feverishly anticipated. A new Tarantino film is always an event, of course, but when it is nearly three hours long, when it is about the movie business, and when it has the Sergio Leone-evoking title of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood... well, what could be more exciting for the cinephiles on the Riviera? Many of us were hoping to make use of Brad Pitt’s line at the end of Inglourious Basterds: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
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In fact, the film is way too relaxed to reach those intoxicating heights. One character talks at length about a novel featuring a rodeo rider nicknamed ‘Easy Breezy’. And, discounting two spurts of Tarantino’s signature gruesome violence, easy-breezy is exactly what Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is.
It’s set in Los Angeles in 1969, when the times they were a-changin’. Studio stars in smart suits were on their way out, long-haired hippies were strolling in – and you only have to recall how men usually dress in Tarantino’s oeuvre to figure out which group has his sympathies. At heart, the film is a reactionary macho fantasy in which nothing and no one can beat a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, two-fisted, middle-aged white guy. It could have been called ‘Make Hollywood Great Again’. Never one to be shy about his enthusiasm for feet, Tarantino makes it clear that, as far as he is concerned, the best thing about the flower-power generation is that the women walk around with no shoes and socks on.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an actor with a slight offscreen stammer who had his own Western TV series in the 1950s, but now, after an ill-advised attempt to break into the movies, has to content himself with guest spots as ‘the heavy’ in younger actors’ series. As an agent played by a disappointingly under-used Al Pacino puts it, he used to win the fight at the end of every episode; now it’s his job to lose those same fights.
It is essentially a goofy, good-natured hang-out comedy
His best friend, played by Brad Pitt with a John Wayne drawl, is Cliff Booth, his stunt double in the 1950s TV show, and now his driver and all-purpose assistant. As the dialogue acknowledges, Cliff is “kind of pretty for a stunt double”, and one small issue with Once Upon A Time in... Hollywood is that someone with Pitt’s godlike looks and laid-back charisma would surely have been promoted to movie-star status; a shirtless scene drew gasps and giggles from the audience in Cannes.
The third main character is a real person. Mixing fact with fiction, as he did in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino includes Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a radiant blonde starlet who has just moved in next door to Rick with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha in the blue suit and white ruffled shirt we now associate with Austin Powers).
Tate was murdered in 1969 by Charles Manson’s acolytes, and so the tension in the film comes from our awareness that, in some way or other, Tarantino is eventually going to address that horrific tragedy. But before he gets there, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is essentially a goofy, good-natured hang-out comedy, peppered with in-jokes and buoyed by the self-parodying buddy-buddy chemistry of its two male stars. It ambles between three leisurely stories, two of them so insubstantial that they barely qualify as stories at all. In one yarn, Rick struggles to shoot a sequence as yet another Wild West villain, having had too many cocktails the night before. In another, Sharon spots a cinema which is playing her latest film – The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin – so she goes in and watches it. And in the third, Cliff picks up a seductive teenage hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley), little knowing that she (along with women played by Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham and others) lives in Charles Manson’s commune, on the very ranch where he and Rick used to shoot their series.
Beyond that, there are fun glimpses of Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), a brief (and chaste) party at the Playboy Mansion, and some amazingly long excerpts from the Western Rick is shooting. There are adverts and film posters and neon diner signs, and, this being a Tarantino film, there is an album’s worth of finger-clicking pop songs from the late 1960s.
If you can overlook the hoary racial and sexual politics, you can enjoy the tongue-in-cheek gags, the sunny cinematography and the nostalgic period details. But is that really enough, considering what happened to Tate? Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is a film that puts a smile on your face without ever upsetting you or challenging you. As it is inspired by a real-life murder spree, I’m not sure how appropriate that is.
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