I never thought I'd be checking my watch during a Tarantino film, but here we are.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Spoiler alert: high
Is it okay to just flat-out say it's boring? I know that's bad criticism—better to say, "it's clunkily-edited without much sense of mood and even less sense of flow, and the dialogue lacks spark," because somehow that's not just a synonym for "boring." But I can't help it, I'm sorry: Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood is fucking boring, and the vast majority of the movie feels like we're living inside that stupid ellipsis in the title.
Now, I've started out angry, but, honestly, Hollywood doesn't make me angry. It makes me sad. I am, it should be said, a Tarantino fan, maybe even a Tarantino apologist—not necessarily for his production methods, nor for his personality, but for the style and passion with which he makes his films (of which Hollywood is his tenth, as counted by normal human calculation, or otherwise only his ninth, if you prefer Tarantino Math). Now, I'm an idiosyncratic fan. My favorite is Death Proof. Pulp Fiction has not aged so hot, and ranks nearer the middle than the top. So you can see I'm all mixed up anyway. But, regardless, till now the rock bottom of the list was his last film, The Hateful Eight, which is still good; and everything above that is still positively great. Many are masterpieces. Hell, if you asked me, his concluding short from Four Rooms—coincidentally named "The Man From Hollywood"—is a tiny little masterpiece. But Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood? Man. Far from.
This has not been the consensus that's developed around the picture, but for once I'll just let it go and accept I'll never understand what incomprehensible demons drive film critics. In fact, I'll even acknowledge that the consensus description of Hollywood is accurate, that it's a different sort of Tarantino film. It's one that blatantly seeks to lay bare his insecurities and tender feelings about aging, while—not coincidentally—hearkening back to the period of his own earliest memories as a lad in Los Angeles, around 1969. It's his "most personal film," whatever the hell that means in the context of one of the most self-centered filmmakers to ever successfully pursue the art; and a "mature" film, whatever that could possibly mean in the context of one of the most incorrigibly juvenile. But it's also one that lays aside much of the gonzo style that he's become famous for, as both director and as a screenwriter, in the first instance by allowing Hollywood to become the first film in his career that one might describe as slow and contemplative (I would describe it as "unbelievably slack"), and in the second by toning down the rich artificiality of Tarantino Dialogue in favor of a flat naturalism, which is as unbecoming on this filmmaker as the draggy pace or the dearth of any particularly overt genre trappings until, around the third or fourth reel, the Manson Family shows up in a slow-burning, barely-insisted-upon bid to
start a race war ruin our writer-director's innocence.
What fills the time instead is the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging TV Western star on the ass-end of TV Westerns whose career is undergoing a slow-motion collpase, and Rick's companion Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his "stuntman," though this title is more in honor of Cliff's talents than any actual description of his job duties, which no longer involve doing much stuntwork to speak of, but do involve doing odd-jobs around Rick's house and being Rick's only friend. Occasionally, Rick's neighbor, starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), also has scenes—even more occasionally, she has lines—that stop only barely short of playing "A Candle In the Wind" whilst she frolics about Hollywood happy and complete and unaware, I assume mostly because that song wouldn't be period-accurate. These bits, like Cliff's encounters with the Family, are intended to reinforce your extrinsic knowledge that, soon, Rick's next-door neighbor is supposed to die.
What fills the space in Hollywood, meanwhile, is arguably much more important to Tarantino than his characters, and that's a deep and broad recreation of Los Angeles in 1969, presumably mostly factual or at least with a basis in the fact of being alive in Los Angeles in 1969, mixed with a little fiction to integrate Rick and Cliff into the milieu, like a very amusing MAD Magazine cover featuring Rick's TV Western hero. But mostly it's fact, or means to be taken as fact, and it's hard not to be impressed at the labors undertaken by production designer Barbara Ling to fill every inch of the frame with stuff, while Tarantino's customary cinematographer Robert Richardson meticulously captures the smoggy sunlight that rains endlessly down during the day along with the lamps and neon signs of Angeleno nights. Even the soundscape is effortfully prepared and polished, a cavalcade of AM radio hits and, maybe more crucially to Tarantino, vintage radio ads. Like I said, if it's what you're into, it's broad and it's deep. But you'll notice I've used words like "labor" and "effortful" and if that makes it sound like I'm not especially into it as a end unto itself, you're right.
So what we have is a nostalgia trip through the late 1960s fueled by millions of dollars' worth of set decoration, centered around a directorial stand-in and that directorial stand-in's buddy, whom the film spends a great deal of time with but has few insights about. I never thought I'd see the day where a Tarantino film could be directly compared to Roma. But the film it most resembles in Tarantino's body of work, at least structurally, probably is Death Proof: it follows several shallow characters as they dick around, while heavily foreshadowing a doom that we're aware of and they are not. It's vastly less focused, of course, and the difference is that Death Proof operated more-or-less in real time and reached its (first) climax in about an hour, whereupon it became a crazed inversion of itself, whereas Hollywood presents a much, much more decompressed version of its characters' daily lives as it occurs over the course of three non-contiguous days, their time, and—actually, also pretty close to that in our time, to be frank, though I guess the clock technically says it was only 135 out of 165 very long minutes.
Yet it feels awfully empty, despite offering up its narrative in such a big container: the apparent core appeal, the male bond between Rick and Cliff—as represented through screen legends DiCaprio and Pitt, together for the first time—seems like it exists as much in the imagination of a very intermittent narrator (Kurt Russell) as it does on the screen, and Tarantino separates them for such long stretches that they have almost as much to do with one another as Tate has to do with anything, which is nothing. Rick comes off more rounded than Cliff, mostly in little ways. As for Cliff, Cliff killed his wife and got away with it, maybe (probably), and the movie doesn't give a shit either way. That's his whole deal. DiCaprio and Pitt are trying, I suppose, and that's fine.
The most emotionally potent scene in the first 140 minutes, in fact, is some more-or-less straight bullshit involving a precocious child actor (Julia Butters) on the set of another TV Western. She tells Rick what he needs to hear, and it jars mightily with the naturalism surrounding it. It's not even particularly moving or funny, and it comes astride Tarantino's hands-down most cumbersome Western pastiche, trading in awesome spaghetti Westerns for pokey American television and recapturing that pokiness in full. It's marginally interesting to notice that, while it goes on, this pastiche feels "real," in the cinematic sense—it's filmed with multiple angles (and better than a TV western would be), with invisible cameras and crew, as if Rick and company have disappeared into a pocket movie universe, representing their and Tarantino's heart's desire—but, like, there are lots of movies-within-movies bearing this conceit, and it's apparently only when it's Tarantino that this becomes something worth mentioning. Visually, Hollywood's the most sedating work of cinema Tarantino's ever put his name to: it's a miracle when dialogue isn't rendered in the sleepiest kind of shot/reverse shot (whenever it isn't, it's in one of the film's otherwise-unmarked flashbacks, which presents an intellectual exercise about how people "think in movies" that could not be less immediate or more tedious), and the frequent recourse to drawn-out montage when one or zero shots would have sufficed is downright numbing. Possibly 10% of this movie is watching Pitt drive a fucking car—it feels like even more of it is Pitt feeding a dog—and all the production and sound design in the world does not compensate for the feeling of going absolutely nowhere. Which itself reflects the characters, but "movies about nothing" in the Seinfeldian sense (only with rad violence) were how Tarantino established himself as one of our tiny handful of brand-name directors back with Pulp Fiction. It's actively depressing to see the bad version of that with his name on it, and nothing this year has made me less enthusiastic about movies than the Tarantino movie about movies. Admittedly, I've skipped a lot of things I had no interest in, but that's insane.
I could say, "it's indulgent." Of course it's indulgent. They always are. Traditionally, it's even what I've loved about Tarantino. But his self-indulgence has till now always been an inviting one, a shared self-indulgence, a call for everybody to love the goofy shit he loves, especially the way he hybridizes and vitalizes it. But this time it's truly indulgent, in the most damning sense of the word, just him wanking endlessly over his lost childhood, and—naturally—over many, many women's feet (this time thrown like kicks right into your face, whether you share this particular interest of his or not), all the while expressing through Rick his own fears of getting old and soft and irrelevant. His belief in its inevitability has been a constant refrain in his public statements (and, if you've been remotely paying attention, his films) since almost the beginning. Now it's apparently crystallized in his late middle-age into something that can't be ignored. He's often said directors always lose it around their tenth film, and I guess this time I have to take him at his word, for Hollywood is, perversely, Tarantino keeping the awful promise which he's so often made.
Which is harsher than I intend, even if Hollywood puts me in a harsh mood. One bad film?—usually, that's nothing, and I'm sure this isn't anywhere close to the end. And it's not as if Hollywood is pure torture; it's boring, but not, like, chew-your-leg-off boring. (Well, usually.) It often snags your interest back for a line or even a scene at a time—there's at least a smattering of good stuff throughout the first couple of hours. (Sometimes it's just a song cue, the most basic possible way to get your attention, but the tete-a-tete between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is an obvious highlight, and whatever crude fan-fiction tendencies can be perceived within it are secondary to the fact it at least lets Tarantino wake up and do something.)
And then, there is that ending, a dissonant but fascinating return to form after what's amounted to two-plus hours spent pretending, unsuccessfully, to be somebody respectable. And when I say I dislike the movie, I absolutely do not join those who thought the ending was a bridge too far. On the contrary, despite quibbles—mostly to do with the specific framing of the violence, in what I strongly suspect is the defiant petulance of a 56 year old child responding to folks' criticism of The Hateful Eight (Tarantino is "mature" my ass)—this ending is a bridge exactly far enough. The downside is that it becomes painfully apparent that this ending is the biggest reason the film exists at all, yet has, in Tarantino's self-generosity, somehow grown more than a full feature's length out in front of it. But I like it very much: like Inglorious Basterds before it (or, to less roaringly-ahistorical degrees, like both Death Proof and Django Unchained), Hollywood wants to right wrongs and restore justice, and justify the sheer immensity of its nostalgia, and it simply does not care if it can only do that in a fantasy, because in Tarantino's mind it's fantasies that make the world. Maybe he's right about that. It's funny and brutal and there's just something dreadfully satisfying about the lie that the innocent were spared and the good guys actually won—as well as the hope that, out of the literal ashes, the old guy got the second chance he deserved, too, at the invitation of the next generation, who knew (in some sense) that he did save her, or wanted to save her, and now she saw him for the first time, recognizing that he still had potential that hadn't been quite exhausted yet. And when I lay the ending out like that, I really wish that Once Upon a Time In Hollywood could have lived up to it.