Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Flaccid Fairy Tale: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

The following contains spoilers.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time...  in Hollywood, is a noted departure from his norm. It’s devoid of most of his worst habits, like the repetitive use of racial epithets for sheer shock value, which African American filmmaker Spike Lee has properly called him out on, as well as the mucho macho posturing of his male characters, which has always been a tiresome feature of his films. Those motifs certainly permeated his last two mediocre features, Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015). By comparison to those, this movie is actually quite an amiable effort on his part and a bit more ambitious than some of the season’s other films, such as the vapid Danny Boyle/Richard Curtis alternate-history comedy Yesterday and Jim Jarmusch’s one-note deadpan zombie flick The Dead Don’t Die. But its wispy story line is not thought through and ultimately it’s a slight movie that fades away once the credits have finished running.

Tarantino mixes fact with fiction. Set in Los Angeles in 1969, Once Upon a Time revolves around struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who achieved fame in a (made-up) TV western called Bounty Law but now, six years after its cancellation, is reduced to snagging guest-villain roles in (actual) shows like Lancer and The F.B.I. Along for the ride is his friend and stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who these days mostly just drives Dalton, who’s lost his license for drunk-driving infractions, and runs errands for him. Dalton’s next-door neighbours happen to be director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) – who’s barely in the movie – and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Outside of Dalton and Booth, who are loosely based on Burt Reynolds and his stunt double Hal Needham, most of the characters are identifiable, ranging from Hollywood producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) to Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and Manson Family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Dakota Fanning, creepily effective), who later tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

But don’t let the verisimilitude of much of the movie’s world fool you. Those real characters don’t really add much to the film, which is content merely to offer up an affectionately rendered Hollywood while (once again) displaying Tarantino’s penchant for inserting pop culture references and name dropping. Those tropes, including the radio and TV commercials everyone listens to, are effective – up to a point –but eventually, those ads and the snippets of the rock songs and series we see grows tiresome. Tarantino does remind us that watching TV series was ubiquitous in the 60s but the idea that the reason some of the Manson Family wanted to commit murder – that TV taught Americans how to kill – is, finally, facile stuff, like the film as a whole.

That applies particularly to its depiction of the Manson Family, who murdered Tate and four others at her home in August of 1969. In Once Upon a Time, those murders are prevented by Booth and Dalton but if the movie, in altering history, is trying to make the point that it’s showcasing a kinder, gentler America than the one that actually existed then, that idea is not really borne out by what comes before in the film. I’m referring to the excessively and unnecessarily violent scene where Booth and a drunken, belligerent Dalton best the Manson Family members who decide to kill him instead, but come a cropper in the attempt. There’s also a reference to Booth’s possibly having murdered his wife and the Manson Family’s virtual imprisonment of Booth’s old friend, ranch owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern), so that they can squat on his land. Spahn’s plight attracts Booth’s attention, in a scary scene wherein the stunt man beats the crap out of one of Manson’s acolytes (James Landry Hébert) after he punctures his tire. The Manson folk are genuinely frightening on screen but they’re presented in a manner that evokes too many obvious horror movies. And they come across as too menacing; they were underestimated by most people they encountered. By Tarantino’s standards the movie may be almost pacifistic but it’s hardly a non-violent utopia, happy ending or not.

Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

Besides, other than saving Tate and her pals from Manson’s people, Tarantino, who wrote as well as directed the movie, doesn’t do anything interesting or provocative with that twist, such as extrapolating how Polanski’s life and career, and Tate’s, might – or might not – have turned out differently. There’s none of the alternate-history smarts of Inglourious Basterds (2009), Tarantino’s best film, which imagined a World War Two where the Jews had more control of their fate and could fight the Nazis in guerrilla warfare. Its audacity in their dealing with Hitler is unmatched in Once Upon a Time or, for that matter, in any of the director’s other movies.

The main problem, finally, with Once Upon a Time is in its meandering screenplay. It doesn’t really go anywhere and spends too much time on some sequences, such as its depiction of Dalton’s guest stint on Lancer, which goes on far beyond the point where we get an idea of the quality of the show or how good he is as an actor. (That scene boasts DiCaprio’s finest work in the movie but he’s consistently engaging throughout.) The episode we see sounds almost theatrical, as if it had been written by Quentin Tarantino. It’s vaguely possible that Lancer, which ran for two years (1968-70), was actually the Western equivalent of the superior cop show Naked City (1958-63) but I think I’d know if that was the case. The movie’s main point – the saving of Sharon Tate et al – is so lackadaisical, even flimsy, in its unfolding and the film is so tedious – it comes in at nearly three hours – that I couldn’t help wonder if Tarantino really had much interest in developing the plot after he’d initially thought of bringing Manson and company into it. Besides, so much of the movie seems to have forgotten about those real-life characters in lieu of focusing on Dalton and Booth instead. In the process, Tarantino pretty much squanders a fine star-studded cast, which, besides Dern and Pacino in cameos, also includes such stalwarts as James Remar, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Kurt Russell and Margaret Qualley, most of whose parts are of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them variety. Brad Pitt is just okay; he doesn’t really have much to do in most of the film, other than function as a genial counterpart to Dalton’s troubled, self-doubting, alcoholic persona. Tarantino used him much better in Inglourious Basterds as the non-Jewish head of the Jewish revengers. I did like Robbie’s take on Sharon Tate, though her part contains only one substantial scene, where she goes to see herself in her performance in the Dean Martin movie The Wrecking Crew. When she puts her dirty bare feet up on the seat in front of her the gesture just captures her character: a starlet minus the vanity and self-consciousness most young talent of the time would display. Too bad her part isn’t bigger. The movie looks good, courtesy of longtime Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson, but the title's fairy tale reference is underutilized; the narration only kicks in near the finale of the film, which doesn’t really set any consistent tone. It’s too little, too late.

I’ve generally had mixed feelings about Tarantino’s oeuvre, liking some (Inglourious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs (1991, though it stole liberally from Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong-set 1987 City on Fire), and his gentle crime film Jackie Brown (1997) and disliking others (the Kill Bill movies (2003 / 2004), Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight). But all his films, have provoked reactions in me, whether positive or negative – or both in the case of Pulp Fiction (1994). But Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood merely left me indifferent, which is hardly any reaction at all.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course entitled Jewish Issues on Film: Complex and Changing Realities, in the fall. Shlomo will also be teaching a course, beginning October 2, at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies, entitled American Cinema of the 70s: The Last Golden Age.

No comments:

Post a Comment