Well, that’s three hours of my life I’ll never get back. It’s been days since I saw Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” and I still regret losing the three hours the film stole from me last weekend.
“Once Upon a Time” is only the ninth movie in a filmography that stretches back to 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs.” The former has an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes and 85% on Metacritic. The film is getting rave reviews.
And then there’s me, who kept checking the time. Or the three folks I saw the movie with, each of them declaring the movie to be worse than “Crawl.” And then Steve Wildsmith told me one of my favorite Knoxville musicians walked out of the film at 40 minutes in. (For the record, that’s the first time I checked the time.)
The film is Tarantino’s ode to 1960s Hollywood and the evolution it went through. Leonardo DiCaprio plays washed-up actor Rick Dalton. In the 1950s, he starred in a black-and-white TV western before landing roles in various action films. Now, though, he’s guest starring on various prime time shows. Once a leading man, he’s relegated to playing the bad guy who loses.
At his side is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s stunt man. As Dalton’s workload has lightened, so has Booth’s. He doesn’t have a lot of friends in Hollywood, and work doesn’t come easily. It’s even harder to find, considering at least half of industry folks believe he killed his wife. (Frankly, there’s a good chance he did.) Instead of working as a stuntman, he’s become Dalton’s chauffeur, handyman, errand boy and anything else.
The last “main” character is Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), have moved in next door to Dalton, and as his light dims, hers begins to shine more brightly. Dalton is a stuttering alcoholic, while Tate is having a delightful time with friends, buying first editions of classic novels and seeing folks enjoy her films. Dalton and Tate are a stark contrast to each other.
The film also introduces us to Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his “family.” On a drive, Booth comes across Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a young hippie who hitches a ride with him. She offers sexual favors as he drives her to the abandoned studio lot she and her “family” are staying at. They’re sketchy, dirty and exactly what you would expect the Manson “family” to be.
I mentioned Booth meeting Pussycat on a drive. I feel it necessary to tell you Booth does a lot of driving in the film. He drives home. He drives Dalton. He drives here, there and everywhere. There’s. So. Much. Driving. Supposedly, the driving is supposed to represent something, but honestly, I don’t care. The film is ridiculously long, and it feels long. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a third of the movie is just watching people drive.
Maybe that’s the problem. The film is scene after scene of nothing happening. We watch Booth drive and make macaroni and cheese out of a box. We see Tate and friends driving or dancing. We watch Dalton rehearse lines he’ll forget later because he’s hungover. I get that Tarantino is pretending to build a world and develop these characters, but what’s the point?
I would gladly trade half an hour of driving for a storyline that flows. Instead, we get snippets of fake movies or lengthy scenes of Dalton’s guest roles opposite rising stars. We see Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) tell a friend about Tate’s romantic life. Does it enhance the story? Does it fit? No. In fact, Tate is only in the film because of the real-life actress’ brutal slaying at the hands of the Manson family.
The film isn’t her story, or any of the other victims at 10050 Cielo Drive. It is about Booth and Dalton. It is about Tarantino’s fascination with revisionism and the idea that cinema has the power to right past wrongs. He hasn’t let this idea slip from his mind since 2009’s “Inglorious Basterds,” and I daresay he hasn’t done much new with it since that first movie. He has slipped down a rabbit hole, and he apparently lacks the artistry and temperament to interrogate that idea and subvert historical narratives enough to evoke new perspectives.
Once upon a time I liked Tarantino’s movies: “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” and “Inglorious Basterds.” All of those films distilled his cinematic knowledge, narrative tendencies, peculiar sense of humor and zany dialogue into cohesive stories that felt like he made something special, a film equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. I didn’t get that feeling with this outing, and the end result was something that made me as queasy as all of the female feet I saw. (Seriously, they were everywhere.) Barefoot women just sticking their feet up into the camera. It felt a little like trolling from the filmmaker who has a well-established ardor for them. (Eww, am I right?)
Bottom line: Life is too short for “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” Don’t lose three hours on this meandering, ultraviolent drive through someone’s memory.