I love Quentin Tarantino, and it hurts to watch a loved one who just can’t stop indulging his appetites. Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood is a really good 100-minute movie rattling around inside a 160-minute space. It’s like one of those huge boxes you get from Amazon that contains about nine cubic yards of pillowed plastic, plus a small paperback book. The movie is a plea for cinematic gastric-bypass surgery. Whole chunks of it — hell, most of the material about one of the two principal characters — are merely decorative.
I’d still recommend the movie, barely, because the last 20 minutes are so great, but I’ll say nothing about what happens in them. Just as an otherwise good film can leave you in a foul mood if its ending doesn’t come off, a terrific last act can make up for a lot of shortcomings. I left the theater in high spirits.
My hopes were higher when the project was announced: In half a century, there has still never been a major Hollywood movie about the Manson Family murders. The subject, I think, hits a little too close to home: Charles Manson was not just America’s worst nightmare, he was very specifically Hollywood’s. He was one of those showbiz hangers-on everyone knows. He managed to form a friendship with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson that resulted in the group recording one of his songs. He exploited the hippie culture of openness that then ruled la-la land, even its wealthiest precincts. It’s because of Manson that all of those houses in the Hills have secure perimeters, but in 1969 it was verboten for anybody to suspect anybody of anything in Southern California, where all was sunshine and grooviness. Tarantino’s evocation of the era’s look and feel, aided by a bounty of forgotten songs by the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, is delightful bordering on hypnotic.
The Manson story seems perfect for Tarantino because of its collision of horrific violence with pop culture. The gang scrawled Beatles references on the wall and lived on a disused backlot where Westerns such as Bonanza were filmed. Tarantino’s title tells us exactly what he was hoping to accomplish, harking back not to fairy tales but to his idol Sergio Leone’s masterpieces, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Both of these films are very, very long, yet neither of them feels like it. Cue up the first 20 minutes of the former: Nothing happens, and it’s absolutely brilliant. Making towering works of cinema disguised as cheap genre offerings, Leone provided the model for Tarantino, and Leone’s works anticipated the later turn to meta-storytelling by playing with the mythology of earlier movies. Tarantino makes the Hollywood myth, instead of the Western, the core of his epic by retelling the tale of how the doe-eyed actress-wife of a great filmmaker came to the attention of Manson’s gang.
Tarantino divides Hollywood into the phonies and the real deals. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the vacuous, pretty-boy, B-movie actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt his cool, capable stunt double Cliff Booth. Cliff drives Rick everywhere and does odd jobs for him, but he doesn’t mind. Cliff lives happily with a well-trained dog in a trailer by a drive-in. Rick, who once starred in a cheesy TV Western and nowadays does guest shots on cop shows, seems modeled after early-60s Clint Eastwood, whom Tarantino seems to enjoy mocking. Next door to Rick live Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), who both seem to be having much more fun living the Hollywood dream. While Rick laments his career trajectory, they’re partying with Michelle Phillips and Steve McQueen at the Playboy Mansion.
It registers immediately that Rick is a hack, an alcoholic and a has-been, yet Tarantino keeps reiterating the point again and again, in long, pointless scenes that do nothing to advance the plot. Tarantino, after a career-long association with the penny-pinching Harvey Weinstein, was evidently let off the leash by his new employers at Sony’s Columbia Pictures. Like the other big studios, they begged him to come work for them and apparently agreed to indulge his every extravagance. Tarantino stops the film regularly to linger on a montage of neon marquees fizzing to life, to cast his eye down a boulevard teeming with period cars, or to look at a 1969 television commercial. There must be scenes from close to a dozen movies and TV shows within the movie, some of them real, some fictitious, others combining forms by inserting today’s actors into vintage footage. Almost none of this drives the plot along. Tarantino just thinks it’s cool to re-create 1969 in a thousand different ways, and, with $90 million of Sony’s money to spend, he won’t be denied. He should have cut almost all of it and saved it for the boffins who buy Director’s Cut DVDs. At one point, he spends maybe 10 minutes having Robbie’s character Tate drive into Westwood, explore the movie theater marquees, introduce herself to the employees, pose for a picture, and watch the movie, all so we can observe that Tate played a klutz in a James Bond retread called The Wrecking Crew. Though Robbie is enchanting as Tate, all that Tarantino manages to establish about her character in several long scenes is that she was sweet and pretty.
Ah, but Pitt’s character is brilliant. Every time he is on screen, the movie jumps up a couple of notches. This is especially true in the scene where Cliff, on the set of The Green Hornet, meets a cocksure young martial artist named Bruce Lee, who played Cato on the show. Cliff has a mysterious past (somehow he killed his wife and got away with it, and we’re meant to consider this detail hilarious) and comes prepared for anything. After he meets an adorable lost teen named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) as she is diving through dumpsters, she winds up taking him to meet her friends at the Spahn Ranch, where the Manson girls live on Old West movie sets. A very long scene there hums with suspense in the Leone tradition, then fizzles out with a dull joke that renders the whole digression meaningless. Still, every time Rick the loser and Cliff the problem-solver are apart, I couldn’t wait to get back to Cliff.
Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood isn’t an outright failure like The Hateful Eight, but it falls far short of Tarantino’s masterworks Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds, and it’s sloppy compared with Django Unchained or Kill Bill Vol. 2. With nobody advising him otherwise, Tarantino listened too little to Tarantino the writer (“This story drags, man”) and too much to Tarantino the director (“Don’t rush me, man, I want to pan over some imaginary dog food flavors for a while. How about rat?”). This film not only stands to win the Oscar for Best Production Design, it should win an extra Oscar for Most Production Design, featuring as it does more painstakingly crafted props and dazzling sets than you’ll see in the next ten movies combined. Tarantino is not the first to be taught this lesson, but too much money can be a curse. On a lower budget, Tarantino might have curbed his fancies, tightened things up. As it is, Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood is an intermittently brilliant disappointment.