Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 31, 2020)
For his first film since 2015’s Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino returns with 2019’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. Set in 1969, the film focuses on Jake Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star.
In the 1950s, Jake starred on the popular Western TV series Bounty Law. However, after its cancellation, he found it more difficult to get lead roles, and at the end of the 1960s, he becomes himself stuck as the “heavy” in TV shows.
While Jake deals with his career decline, his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) experiences similar issues, though Cliff’s troubled past and his own hotheaded temperament also act as impediments. Cliff now mostly serves as Jake’s personal assistant and driver.
On the other side of the career coin, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) seems to be on the rise. Married to successful director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), Sharon looks like someone with a bright future ahead of her.
Sharon and Jake live next door to each other, though they haven’t met. As we trace their varying career trajectories and personal lives, Cliff meets “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley), a member of the cult headed by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), and he sees strange goings-on at their compound.
That’s the demon lurking in the background through Once. I suspect most viewers already know what happened to Tate in real-life, so any allusions to Manson and his “family” come with a sense of foreboding, as we’re aware where this story will end.
Or where it ended in reality, but not so much in the movie. Potential spoilers ahoy!
Tarantino takes the tale involved behind Manson and Tate and fictionalizes it to a large degree. Neither Jake nor Cliff existed in real life, so obviously all their interactions with Sharon and the Manson cult didn’t occur.
As I watched Once, I wondered how Tarantino would integrate the real and the fabricated. After all, I knew this movie would conclude with Sharon and her friends brutally butchered by Manson’s disciples, so how could the fictional Jake and Cliff play a meaningful part in that aspect of the story?
Tarantino solved this dilemma with an ending that totally subverts real events. As he did with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino uses historical facts to provide a scenario that gives us a revenge fantasy.
Just as Basterds ended with the massacre of Hitler and many prominent Nazis, Once ensures that Sharon and her pals survive while Manson’s “children” suffer exceedingly violent deaths. At a basic emotional level, this feels semi-satisfying, but it also seems redundant after Basterds and Django.
Is Tarantino now going to focus on movies that right historical wrongs? Will the next one save JFK and force Lee Harvey Oswald to get his face melted off by some fictional FBI agent?
Given his storied career, I won’t call Tarantino a one-trick pony, but if he continues down this path, his work will turn stale. Part of the intrigue of Once comes from the sense of foreboding, as we dread the slaughter of Sharon and pals.
If we know Tarantino will pull a rabbit out of a hat and alter history, that tension evaporates. We’ll then find ourselves less interested, as we know we’ll wind up with a happy ending.
Although I’ve focused on the Manson/Tate side of things so far in my review, in reality Once spends surprisingly little time with that aspect of the narrative. Prior to the climax, we don’t really get a lot in that domain.
We do see the running thread of Cliff’s flirtation with Pussycat, and we get a scene in which he visits Spahn Ranch that adds to the foreboding. In addition, we see occasional glimpses of Sharon’s life, though she plays a relatively minor role compared to all the screen time granted Cliff and Jake.
In truth, Sharon exists in Once as a red herring. We get to know her mainly to serve the ending – those of us who know the real events, that is.
For the ending to work, we need to feel relief that this Sharon survived, and for that to pay off, we need to have some connection to her. If Once didn’t involve Sharon prior to the finale, we’d have no emotional stake.
Unfortunately, Tarantino barely bothers to make her a workable character. She shows up sporadically to give us some hint at her life, but the movie cares way more about Jake and Cliff.
This leaves Robbie as a surprisingly small presence, as a star of her stature demands a bigger part. I suppose that’s part of the red herring dimension as well, since we anticipate more from Sharon due to Robbie’s fame.
For the vast majority of Once, we get the Leo and Brad show, and to some degree, that works. The two demonstrate fine chemistry and make their shared scenes enjoyable.
However, Tarantino’s immense self-indulgence acts as a major obstacle here. At more than 160 minutes, Once runs a good hour too long because Tarantino spends far too much time on recreations of period films and TV.
We know that Tarantino is a movie buff without peer, and he stages loving tributes to all sorts of era-related programs. In small doses, these are fun to see.
But Tarantino doesn’t understand the concept of “small doses”, so massive chunks of Once get eaten up with these recreations. They serve virtually no dramatic purpose and exist because the director thinks it’s fun.
The worst offender comes from an exceedingly long sequence that shows Jake during a shoot. A little of this acts to push along the character, but most of it’s there because Tarantino thinks it’s cool.
It’s not – at least not to people who want a movie with forward momentum. When I saw Once theatrically, I sat through about three minutes of this segment before I decided to hit the restroom.
I figured it’d be done when I returned, but nope – it kept going for a sizable amount of time after that. The actual narrative material could’ve been addressed in probably two or three minutes, but Tarantino pushes well past the point of useful returns.
I respect Tarantino enough that I usually give him the benefit of the doubt, but he uses his bully pulpit far too much in Once. The Tarantino of 25 years ago couldn’t have gotten away with all this indulgence, as the producers wouldn’t have let him.
And I doubt the Tarantino of the 1990s would’ve wanted to include so much superfluous material, as he’d recognize it’s simply poor filmmaking. In the past, when Tarantino opted for scenes that don’t clearly advance the plot, he’d at least make them indicative of character and/or very entertaining.
In Once, though, he too often goes down paths that neither delight nor push the narrative. I won’t call Tarantino drunk on his own power, but he needs to understand that 12 minutes of a TV shoot isn’t good storytelling.
Unfortunately, Once becomes a mix of fetish flashbacks in search of a narrative. There’s enough substance to keep us moderately involved, but the film feels too long and too rambling to satisfy.
End credits footnote: a “vintage Jake Dalton” ad shows up along the way, and we also get a real 1960s radio promo for the Batman TV series after that.
Title-related footnote: the Blu-ray cover to the left and all the movie’s posters call it Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood, but the actual credits refer to it as Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.
Which is correct? Damned if I know, but I went with the title as shown in the film itself. It makes more sense anyway, as the ellipses seem more logical between “Time” and “In” than between “In” and “Hollywood”.