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  • by Jeff Beck

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino's Meandering Opus

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

Since 1992, writer/director Quentin Tarantino has been bringing us one fascinating film after another, beginning with his breakout hit “Reservoir Dogs.” For the most part, he has delivered great films that have included not only his debut, but also “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” and “Inglourious Basterds,” picking up two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay along the way. 27 years after he began, he has come to his ninth film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a rather bizarre entry in his filmography that many might not even recognize as Tarantino if they didn’t already know he was behind it. It’s already enjoyed very favorable reviews out of Cannes from earlier this year, but now it’s time for the rest of the world to see where it stands within his remarkable body of work.

The film takes place in 1969 Hollywood, where once-big actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to keep his career afloat with guest spots on TV shows. Along for the ride is his faithful friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who does odd jobs for Rick and a few stunts when he gets the chance. Rick realizes his career is on the decline, but that doesn’t stop him from getting out there and playing the villain week after week, or from considering a rather different path that could bring him back into the spotlight. The film follows Rick and Cliff on their separate journeys, while a tragic event of the period slowly begins to unfold in the background.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has already been called the most un-Tarantino-like film that he has made, but it’s all too easy to see exactly why that is. When one thinks of a Tarantino film, one tends to think of the compelling plotlines and the sharp dialogue that each and every one of them contains, from “Reservoir Dogs” right up through “The Hateful Eight.” Unfortunately, when it comes to his latest opus, both seem to be quite lacking. The synopsis above was hard enough to assemble simply because the storyline to the film is very sparse, and as far as the dialogue goes, there really aren’t any lines that are particularly memorable.

So what has Tarantino done instead? He has made a 161-minute film that meanders about as it tries to tell the story of an actor and his stuntman, occasionally finding success with great sequences that show Rick filming scenes for a western, but when it comes to great scenes, these are pretty much the only ones that stick out, that is, until you get to the completely-bonkers finale. This being a Tarantino film, you know there has to be extreme acts of violence somewhere, and this time he saved it all for the wild conclusion. It’s an amusing ending that brings a little excitement to an otherwise uneventful film, but it still doesn’t make up for the mostly-forgettable bulk of what came before.

As mentioned, the film is 161 minutes long, but there was certainly no reason for it to be. Something that becomes a rather amusing running joke throughout the movie (at least for the bewildered people in the audience) is the number of times Tarantino focuses on people just driving through Hollywood. Totaling these scenes up, it probably comes to at least 20 minutes of footage that could’ve been trimmed. And speaking of sequences that could’ve been trimmed, there’s a collection of scenes that has Cliff visiting an old studio ranch he used to work at, during which he visits the elderly owner (Bruce Dern). These scenes, which felt like at least another 15-20 minutes, served no purpose and could have easily been cut down, or excised entirely. Of course, audiences are used to the epic lengths of his films by now, many of which run between 150-180 minutes, but they’ve always been put to much better use, making the meandering nature of the film that much more baffling.

It’s understandable that Tarantino would want to make a love letter to ‘60s Hollywood like this, but if he was going to do it, why would he not put such a framework to better use? Now it’s hardly a terrible film, and there is a lot to like about it, including fine turns from DiCaprio and Pitt, a good splash of humor throughout, and a few memorable sequences that show how good the film could’ve been, but on the whole, it’s a shockingly forgettable film from the great writer/director. Shocking because, for a director who so clearly loves films and filmmaking, you would think that this set-up, combined with his skills, would be a killer combination, not something that you just shrug off nearly three hours later. There was a great idea here, but it seems as though Tarantino just wasn’t particularly interested in exploring it, instead just wandering around the time period with hardly a care. Ultimately, when all is said and done, it ends up being utterly shocking to have to say that this is the first Tarantino film that just doesn’t quite work. 2.5/4 stars.

Now playing in theaters everywhere.

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