Sunday 19 January 2020

Movie Review: Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood (2019)

A comedy-drama, Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood lovingly recreates a slice of time and place but is also inexcusably flabby and lacking in narrative purpose.

In Hollywood of 1969, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to find acting work. He used to be a television western series star working with his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), but Rick failed in his attempted transition to big-screen roles. Now he is reduced to guest-starring on television shows, although agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers him the chance to star in Rome-filmed Spaghetti Westerns. Rick is also dealing with the ignominy of losing his driver's licence due a drinking problem, with Cliff now driving him everywhere.

Rick is neighbours with celebrated director Roman Polanski and his wife actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). She is enjoying her burgeoning stardom and spends an afternoon at the movies watching one of her recent films. Meanwhile as Rick shoots his latest television guest role, Cliff stumbles upon the hangout of the creepy Charles Manson cult at the isolated ranch of his old buddy George Spahn (Bruce Dern).

Featuring a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive plot, Quentin Tarantino writes and directs an ode to an era. 1969 is an assassination-weary inflection point as hippie idealism transitions to 1970s cynicism, with the horrors perpetuated by the Manson maniacs bringing death to the heart of Hollywood. Tarantino uses the looming threat of murder as a backdrop, but otherwise is more interested in celebrating the friendship between Rick and Cliff.

Their bond is the heart of the film, two men with their best days behind them and now confronting fading career prospects, but doing it together. Rick has good and bad moments filming the television pilot, both disappointing and surprising himself before taking a crack at the Italian movie industry. Cliff stands by his friend through thick and thin, picking up scraps of work but mostly supporting Rick because he has essentially nothing else to lean on.

Rick's struggle to accept his career trajectory is an intermittent theme. His drinking and denial get in the way of any positive initiative for transformation, although sparks of pride and talent point to a potential path towards redefinition.

The Sharon Tate chapter stands alone, and is a bittersweet and mostly dialogue-free tribute to an actress delighted by the prospect of her own success. The Manson cult menace intrudes onto both storylines starting with Cliff's visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, the film's best scene featuring the stuntman infiltrating a twilight zone occupied by lost souls.

Tarantino prolongs the essentially plotless film to a wholly unnecessary 161 minutes. Most scenes are artificially stretched prompting a dance with tedium, and many sequences (hello Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen) are quite pointless. The quest for grandeur is misguided and frequently deflates the film's momentum.

Visually the film is drenched in stark California sunlight, and the production design is excellent in recreating Los Angeles circa 1969 without relying on digital gimmicks. DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie occupy their roles with relaxed confidence.

The subversive climax features the usual Tarantino outburst of violence mixed with a mean streak of humour, here slightly less bloody than usual but still featuring dollops of gore. Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood expresses a genuine love for the town where movies live, but the good intentions suffer from fundamental narrative fragmentation and plenty of egotistical oversaturation.

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