‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’ should have been better

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would make a movie unless he was 150% committed to it. So why does “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” look and feel like a project Tarantino felt obligated to make instead of one he felt inspired to make?

Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019)

The setting is L.A., 1969. America is changing, but Hollywood might be changing even faster. All this cultural upheaval has left actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) struggling to find good work. Sure, Dalton can shoot a guest spot as a villain in a television pilot, but a guy like that can’t find good hero work anymore. As Dalton’s (and, therefore, Booth’s) career takes a nosedive, Dalton’s neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is seeing her young career blossom. But at this same time, Charles Manson and his family are planning to rid the country of elitist “pigs”—which means no star, fading or burning bright, are safe from the threat of a madman.

Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019)

Tarantino struck gold when he tapped DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie as the leads in his ninth picture. Without them, I hate to think of what this movie would have been. Leonardo DiCaprio’s last performance in a Tarantino movie, 2012’s “Django Unchained,” was snubbed for Oscar consideration. This time, he might be luckier. His first role since winning an Oscar for 2015’s “The Revenant” is a doozy. Dalton is a drunk with self-esteem issues. DiCaprio is a force to be reckoned with…when we get to see him, that is. Too often, DiCaprio is separated from his co-stars…it’s frustrating. Brad Pitt plays a man who smokes at home (and has a murderous past) but is otherwise a clean, straight-shooting man and loyal friend. He doesn’t get the dialogue or the screen time that made his role in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” such a joy to watch. And then there’s the goddess Margot Robbie, who is criminally underused in a role that is seen more than heard. Still, she’s mesmerizing as Sharon Tate. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s on the screen.

If, as the old saying posits, the best edit is an edit you can’t see, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a masterclass in what not to do. Maybe it’s the result of the movie’s recent rework—following less than stellar reviews after its Cannes premiere—but the movie’s many cuts become an unneeded distraction. It doesn’t help that the split focus between three characters already means there was going to be plenty of back-and-forth. Plus, Tarantino’s desire to pack his movie with cameos leads to a few scenes that should have been cut altogether. We could have done without Al Pacino’s scenes, for example, and the couple scenes involving Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) are fun but unnecessary. Their inclusions seemed shoehorned.

I want to believe there was a good movie somewhere in this footage. There are plenty of terrific moments, thanks to its stunning cast. But the way this film was cut together leaves a lot to be desired. Hopefully, Tarantino’s tenth feature (and allegedly last, though I’m hoping he changes his mind) is more comprehensible.

6.5/10

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