Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

How the late career masterpiece turned into a major misstep for Quentin. Yes, there will be spoilers.

By Vicky Pea
Wed 21 August, 2019

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I should have loved this film. Nay, I should have adored it. Indulge me for a moment while I set the scene.

First up, it’s a Tarantino. I’m a huge admirer of Quentin’s work, especially this last decade. For me, Inglorious Bastards is his finest work, with Django and Hateful Eight up there for me too. All three have been thoroughly enjoyed again and again on a more frequent basis than Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill or Dogs.

With their respective roles in Bastards and Django, Pitt and DiCaprio have never been better than under the direction of Quentin. They are the stand out performances when I think of either. Burn After Reading and Catch Me If You Can are both close to my heart, but give me those sweet sweet A-lister Tarantino roles and generally speaking I’m a pretty happy camper.

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The setting, LA in 1969. The first thing that came to mind was soundtrack baby! This is a director who knows what’s his doing with music, picking and placing songs with the best of them and when you’ve got a setting as ripe as this I had high expectations in regards to its musical chops.

Although I’m wary of using the term “Manson Fan” I am kind of a Manson fan. My first true crime obsession, I know almost everything there is to know about Charles Manson, the Manson family and the notorious events of August 8th 1969.

In my mind, this couldn’t go wrong and I’d have a summer smash that was tailor made for me.

A quick descent

The plot, in a nutshell, is centred around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), an out of favour actor who gave up a promising TV career and series for an ill advised shot at movie stardom and Cliff Booth (Pitt), his long suffering stunt double. Much of the movie follows them throughout their own days, Rick on various, mostly Western themed sets and Cliff driving about town running the occasional errand. Their performances are… fine. The chemistry is good. They make for a fun enough double act.

The majority of the film is set six months prior to the Manson Family murders. Assuming you happen to know this, but more on that later. Occasionally the antics of Rick and Cliff are interrupted by scenes from the rich and famous lifestyles of Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Jay Sebring and their circle of Hollywood friends. Assuming you know who they are.

Around about the 55 minute mark my cinema accomplice, who is no stranger to enjoying a Tarantino flick, had to go get a coffee to put a stop to the increasingly frequent urge to dose off.

I was deep into a full blown inner monologue of conversation with myself and had been since around the third or fourth scene. “Am I missing something? Is this supposed to be good? Are people digging this? God would he just pick up the girl and go somewhere with this. Why am I so fucking bored”. It was duller than the meandering bus ride to town earlier in the day.

In an attempt to understand the first hour of this movie once we returned home, reviews were taken in, discussions had, comparisons to Hateful Eight (of which my fellow cinema goer is not a fan, unlike me). Occasionally a point would be raised that I could almost nod along to, but even with the best of intentions and my desire to have it all suddenly dawn on me that “Oh yes of course! He’s done it again! Amazing!”, none of them stuck enough for me to retrospectively enjoy it.

Assuming makes an ass out of Quentin

Coming to terms with the fact I did not enjoy this film was one thing, but what I really couldn’t get my head around was how on earth the average, non “Manson Fan”,viewer could have enjoyed this film.

I don’t care that he played with the Manson story or timeline, because in actual fact it was the only element of the film I even came close to enjoying and from the moment I heard the initial details of this project I was pretty sure of two things; Firstly, we’d get very little Charlie, if at all. Secondly, the Tate murders wouldn’t be committed, or certainly not shown.

For me, the Manson Family was the saving grace of the film, but that’s because I excitedly shook my cinema buddy every time the smallest reference came up. I recognised the players, the scene, it’s a world I’m already familiar with.

The feeling that he relied entirely on the assumption that his audience had a minimum level of prior knowledge seems inexcusable to me.

Now I can only watch this film one way. Through my eyes with my crazy true crime brain, I cannot watch this film as someone without my history with this subject matter, but I can’t even begin to imagine how borderline unwatchable this must have been for someone who wouldn’t have the knowledge to separate the real life characters from the fictional. That may seem ridiculous, but if you don’t know who Sharon Tate is, she’s just as fictitious as Rick Dalton.

And before you say, “come on Vicky, you ain’t so special, everyone knows about the Manson murders”, I decided to do a quick poll once I got back to work.

Upon quizzing six colleagues (ranging from 18 to 52 years old)

Two of them knew who Sharon Tate was;

One of them knew Roman Polanski was;

Two of them knew who Charlie Manson was.

Two of them even claimed that they’d never heard of the Manson Murders or Family. “Doesn’t sound familiar“.

Despite all of this the final third or so of the film is in direct lead up to the events of the evening of August 8th 1969. If you don’t understand the coming storm then the tension must surely be lost on you. They wouldn’t even know that a) multiple horrific murders are about to occur, or b) that – MASSIVE SPOILER Quentin swerves it and changes the outcome. You wouldn’t even know what the outcome was supposed to be.

The film doesn’t even categorically say we see Charlie. We do, but for the uninitiated it’s not actually spelt out. It’s just a dude asking if Terry still lives here. That makes 100% sense to me. But for some, who is this guy, who’s Terry, what’s the point? Who are these hitchhiker girls? Is everyone else experiencing the same level of anxiety as me when we’re at the ranch? People died there too after all. It just leaves me baffled on behalf of them.

Less Fairy-tale, more lullaby

Maybe the story of Rick and Cliff is actually enough to enjoy for the average movie goer. Maybe they shrug and just go with the flow when the weird hippy kids turn up and wonder why other people in the cinema are whispering excitedly when we go to Spahn Ranch, or are introduced to Tex, or suddenly get really anxious when the night in question arrives, but I just can’t believe that.

Worse still, it just didn’t feel like a Tarantino, which is what I wanted. That’s why he’s Tarantino. Call me naive or shallow but it’s why Fincher is Fincher, Cronenberg is Cronenberg, so on and so forth and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There was no stand out impressive shot or camera work, there was no montage to a cracking tune (think Bastard’s with Bowie’s Cat People), there were no real stand out tunes at all. It didn’t even look good. Yes, the set was great, LA in 1969 had indeed been brought to life in exquisite detail, but cinematically it fell someway short of what I’ve come to expect.

It was in dire need of the sharp somewhat self aware whit of a Dr Schultz, Hans Landa, or Jules (where was the monologue!) as well as a central recipient of audience empathy which I’m afraid neither male lead nor Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate were able to provide. Come to think of it, I don’t recall a single character I empathised with. Not even the dog. Maybe Janet, who appears in one scene, played by Zoë Bell, and is sick of putting up with macho shenanigans on set.

Some passages were disjointed to the point where I didn’t even realise one particular scene was in fact a flashback until we abruptly returned to the current timeline. There were a number of scenes of no consequence or purpose, entire cameos I’d forgotten almost instantly and even down right bad scenes that almost left a cringe across my face.

The longer I’ve had to think over it, the more certain I become in my belief that this, unlike what others are saying, is not his “late career masterpiece” but the biggest and clumsiest misstep of his career.

If this director is destined to go out on ten, he’ll need to go back to the drawing board if he intends to go out on top. For now, I’ll continue to agree with the statement of one Lt. Aldo Raine at the close of Inglorious Bastards, “This just might be my masterpiece”, because I see no competition for it here.

How disappointing was it? So disappointing that I, the lazy bitch who hasn’t written anything for months, was inspired in the way that only hate can.