New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” IS MASTERFUL, IF NOT QUITE A MASTERPIECE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Brandy the pit bull in  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. (copyright 2019)
As Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) carves a swastika into the forehead of Nazi Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the American quips, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” It was a fantastic curtain line, as well as the filmmaker’s clever opinion of his work. Indeed, for my money, that film is his greatest accomplishment. His newest is ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, and while it’s often just as masterful, in the end, it’s not quite a masterpiece. The movie is funny, scary, and incredibly moving, but some of it meanders, it’s short on QT’s trademark dialogue, and the third act violence is so over-the-top that it feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie.

When this film was heralded at Cannes this past spring, much got made about the filmmaker’s detailing of 1960’s Hollywood. Indeed, Tarantino brilliantly recreates old TV shows, hippie and hipster costumes, and the 60’s Strip, ladling it all with Jose Feliciano and the Mamas and the Papas. Still, his enormous affection for Tinsel Town concerns those who toil in front of the camera, eking out a living, and struggling to stay relevant. This film is a bittersweet love letter to surviving show biz.

The main character, struggling to keep employed in 1968, is aging leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). In the 1950s, Dalton was a movie star, then a TV star, and now as he’s past 40 and closing out 1968, he’s close to being obsolete. Rick is already an insecure actor, but his heavy drinking only fuels his fears. Thankfully, he’s got his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) to help him through the day. Cliff’s comfortable in his skin, even if it’s getting leathery and craggy. Cliff would like more work too, but he understands it’s a younger man’s game, so he spends most of his time being Rick’s driver, gopher and ‘emotional support animal.’

Rick’s attempt to find meaningful work drives the plot, particularly when he gets a proper guest shot role as a juicy villain on the TV western LANCER. Rick dives in, working on an accent and running lines into his tape recorder, and sharing tricks of the trade on-set his eight-year-old co-star, played sagely by child actress Julie Butters. She’s all Method, one who doesn’t break character off-set, and she inspires Rick to give his all.

It’s a great relationship, even if Tarantino spends far too much time on the set of the LANCER show, eating up a good half hour of screen time. It leads the film to drag, something that’s become a bad habit of the filmmaker’s since THE HATEFUL EIGHT. That film was great for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, Tarantino dragged things out to two hours and 48 minutes. This one is almost as long, and some excess could’ve been trimmed.

The film’s better storyline concerns Cliff and his struggles. Sure, he lands a gig stunting on THE GREEN HORNET, but it isn’t long before he’s into fisticuffs with the show’s star Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). That gets him fired, and soon the meandering Cliff ends up picking up a sexy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) to give her a ride home. The hippie girl’s residence happens to be the infamous Spahn Ranch. In another year, it will become notorious for being the stomping ground of the murderous followers of Charles Manson.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Spahn Ranch was a western movie set where Cliff often toiled, and he agrees to drive Pussycat home to catch up with its proprietor George Spahn (Bruce Dern). But once they arrive, the rest of Manson’s ‘family’ makes Cliff feel most unwelcome as they don’t want him to see how they’ve turned the old geezer into their veritable hostage. Manson’s away, but his No. 2 in charge is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), and she’s anything but welcoming to Cliff.

The scene crackles with tension as Cliff pushes back against the hippie hostiles to meet with George. Here, Tarantino delivers the film’s best scene, capturing a terrifying sense of dread and potential violence that’s palpable throughout the entire set-piece. Adding all the more power to the terror is our knowledge of precisely what Manson’s followers did to Sharon Tate and her friends, not to mention Leo and Rosemary La Bianca, a year later. They may have seemed like flower children, but they exemplified anything but peace and love.

Adding to the suspense is the story’s inclusion of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. Tarantino uses the character in a wholly unexpected way, focusing on her enjoying her life almost a year before that fateful night of August 9, 1969. Robbie’s best moments onscreen showcase her as Tate sneaking into a movie theater where her film THE WRECKING CREW, a comedy she was in that year of 1968. There, she thrills to hearing the audience laugh at her comic performance in the film.

Despite the fun of Robbie’s bare feet propped up on the seats (Tarantino loves naked toes!), she’s not given a lot to do as Tate. She’s not a fully-rounded character, more of a symbol of youth and innocence really, and it feels like a giant, missed opportunity. The director compounds the problem by showing the actual Tate in the movie clips that Robbie is watching. It’s an odd choice considering that earlier in the film Tarantino dropped Di Caprio as Rick into THE GREAT ESCAPE replacing Steve McQueen. He had the technology, so why wasn’t he consistent?

Tarantino shortchanges other characters too. Al Pacino’s flamboyant agent isn’t around very long. Brenda Vaccaro gets credited as his wife, but she’s in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it second or two of screen time. The narrative also includes the characters of McQueen and Roman Polanski, but they’re little more than glorified cameos. Instead, the filmmaker spends way too much time on the actors making LANCER with Rick, and the balance feels off.

Making more hay out of the B list status of television in the sixties seems like a missed opportunity as well. Spaghetti westerns figure into the plot in the third act, but little is shown of Rick’s time making them. Perhaps the oddest move that Tarantino makes occurs with the whole last 30 minutes of the film. There, he incorporates some cartoonish violence that feels too over-the-top compared to the more serious mood the director has established throughout the previous two hours. The final set-piece may be a rouser, even a hoot and a half, but it’s also a head-scratcher.

Tarantino does work wonders with a lot of his young cast, particularly Qualley, Fanning, and Moh. And he gets fantastic performances out of his two leads. Di Caprio gives the sweaty, fidgety Rick his all, rendering a man-child who’s both comedic and tragic. Pitt is even better, making for one of the coolest heroes to ever appear in a Tarantino film. His Cliff is sly, confident, and a generous soul. His interplay with his lumbering pit bull is a delight, almost as endearing as his relationship with the needy Cliff.

Pitt also brings a tight, coiled physicality to his action scenes, dominating every scene he’s in, and putting him in the pole position for a lot of supporting actor awards later this year. Just how well the rest of the film’s attributes do in such contests remains to be seen, but like all of Tarantino’s work, this film is visceral, enthralling, and sure to make a splash. Its wildly veering tone feels unbridled, but the filmmaker’s affection for the town and those who work in it is laser-focused. He loves show biz and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a bittersweet tribute to the fantasies, as well as the fragilities, of those who play in it.

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