Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood / Director: Quentin Tarantino / Released: 2019
That Tarantino is the creator of visually stunning set pieces is a known fact. And his latest instalment, a tour de force of Hollywood nostalgia has plenty of those. But what’s left beneath the beautiful surface?
As with most of the director’s films, many debatable traits are present, perhaps here culminating to an extravagant feast for the eyes. Yes, the one-sided portrayal of barbie doll females is here. The white macho dominance is ever-present. Some factual errors are difficult to hide. Only here, Tarantino goes a step further and crosses the line by introducing real-life people in his feature. Roman Polanski is here, and so is Sharon Tate — both shallowly portrayed — and then there are the Manson Family murders (albeit in an altered version). And when the character of Bruce Lee makes an appearance what the viewer sees is a parody of the man himself.
Of course, the plot has little to do with the barrage of set pieces thrown together (we get everything but the kitchen sink): Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a once-famous actor who is going through a personal crisis, as his career reaches its end. His stunt double, Cliff, also happens to be his best friend. The problem (with most films, not just this one in particular) is that when you have Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt playing roles, what you see is Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt playing roles. Don’t get me wrong, they are both terrific actors, and their performances are excellent, but it is nearly impossible for the viewer to disassociate them from their stardom status. Yes, I know this is the case with most Hollywood films, hence my cry for directors to start using non-famous actors at last. Or if they do insist on hiring celebrities (for the sake of box-office success) then perhaps directors should try to transform them completely:
There is no such transformation here: the roles Tarantino has assigned to Mr DiCaprio and Mr Pitt are pretty straightforward. But don’t take it from me: in the film, when the director Sam Wanamaker (who has cast Rick to play the role of Caleb) tells him he wants to completely transform him, giving him a different haircut and a whole new style, Rick complains: “Sam if you got me covered up in all this…this junk, how’s the audience gonna know it’s me?” To which the director replies: “I hope they don’t. I don’t want them to see Jake Cahill. I want them to see Caleb.”
One would expect a review to delve deeper into the film. Still, some movies are focused so much on being visually appealing that an in-depth analysis is nearly impossible unless you are a film student: in this case, Tarantino’s expert filmmaking techniques can teach you a lot. But then again there are some fundamental flaws: Why does Bruce Lee behave like Polanski who behaves like celebrity X who behaves like most of the characters in this feature? Are all Hollywood stars supposed to be portrayed as arrogant and eccentric? And does the film have any existential or slightly philosophical connotations?
It often seems that the plot exists only to showcase those techniques, the action and the Hollywood megastars who take part in it. Add to the mix reckless driving, substance abuse and bigot language. But the biggest problem lies within the outburst of violence in the finale (don’t worry I won’t spoil it for you).
Is the movie visually stunning? If you don’t pay attention to the anachronisms and “goofs”, you can say it is at least impressive from a technical point of view. So, the film isn’t bad at all, right? Of course, it isn’t! But it is indifferent and perhaps a bit distorted when it comes to the portrayal of its real-world characters. From an ethical point of view, the depiction of violence could have been omitted (and to be totally honest I had to remove a couple of points from the overall score because of the over the top finale that makes violent acts seem like fun). One can watch it as one would observe a nicely made music video, but art is something more than that.
Featured image: Movie poster (Sony Pictures)