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‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ collapses on its potential

| Wednesday, September 4, 2019

JOSEPH HAN | The Observer

Choosing to film his most recent picture around 1969 Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino gave himself a canvas to work with that begged for brilliance.

Over the past 20 years, Tarantino has set his nine feature films in the Wild West, the antebellum South and Nazi-occupied 1940s Europe. And, for the most part, has done so to the satisfaction of his fans, the box office and the pens of film critics. “Inglorious Basterds” has become, in many ways, the war film of the decade despite its explicit lack of historical accuracy. “Django Unchained” brought Tarantino back on stage at the Academy Awards for the first time since his now canonical sophomore effort, “Pulp Fiction.” Even “The Hateful Eight,” despite lackluster reviews from critics, proved more than successful at the box office in an era that is increasingly unforgiving towards films that fall into the “Original Screenplay” category.

Yet, as loved and acclaimed as Tarantino’s more recent films have been, one key attribute handicapped them to a certain extent: the fact that they are not set in Los Angeles.

Tarantino, although born in Tennessee, is, for all intents and purposes, an Angeleno. As a director, and as is evident in his earlier films, he is thoroughly aware of the ways in which Los Angeles should be and can be interwoven into a film — where certain scenes need to take place, how characters should and shouldn’t act and how to ensure a plot progresses in an informal, organic manner.

“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” — arguably Tarantino’s most well-respected and well-reviewed films — are all set in, at the very least, Los Angeles County. The increased quality that accompanies these three films is undoubtedly present in their narrative strength and character development. Tarantino is keenly aware of how Angelenos act and how to frame those actions within the fabric of their city, regardless of whether he is working with an original (i.e. “Pulp Fiction”) or adapted (i.e. “Pulp Fiction”) screenplay. He is a director that knows Southern California so well that his films set there often evoke the feelings of period pieces despite their fictional origins.

Once Tarantino’s camera ventures outside of California, however, he produces a starkly different kind of film — ones that almost seem to caricature history and crutch themselves on the tropes and cliches that accompany whatever specific period he chooses to focus on.

“Inglorious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” are certainly fun films that indulge in their fair share of applause-inducing gore and alternative history but neither of them possesses particularly convincing narrative structures or character development. They seem to be his own attempts at having fun with certain periods in history and often appear to be more concerned with appealing to the senses through blood and gun powder than to the mind through dialogue and plot ingenuity.

His most recent release, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” inhabits a space between these two realms of filmmaking and, thus, grants Tarantino an opportunity to create a film that intermingles his two different styles of filmmaking. As is now evident, however, especially if you paid $15 for a ticket to see it on the silver screen, the acclaimed director squandered such an opportunity and, instead, painted a less-than-captivating picture on an incredibly inviting canvas.

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” chronicles a year or so in the lives of washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his carefree stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The year in which the film takes place also happens to be the very same one that Charles Manson and his family are planning the murder of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. These two interlocked narratives set the scene for a film that could intimately follow the lives of these two dynamic characters while the city of Los Angeles reels in paranoia after the ritualistic murders of celebrities in Beverly Hills.

Instead, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” flounders where it should have flourished. The film, it seems, exists for two reasons: because Tarantino thought it would be interesting to capture a picture of Los Angeles at the very unique crossroads that was 1969 and as an outlet to cram as much of his obsession with the golden age of film as he could.

Initially, the film seems concerned with the inevitable decline of the fame of protagonist Rick Dalton and how he is going to shift his career to meet the demands of a changing Hollywood. We follow him as his show is canceled, through his endeavor into Italian cinema and into the part of his career where he declares himself to be a “has been.” An interesting journey into the mind of a troubled actor seems to arise that, although not typical of a Tarantino film, piques interest and leaves one asking for a bit more. Yet, just as that arm of the narrative is reaching its crescendo, a side plot concerning the Manson family is introduced and, in many ways, takes over the film for little to no reason.

Tarantino wants to accomplish two tasks at once and, as a result of such, ends up doing both poorly.

Yes, DiCaprio, Pitt, Margot Robbie and the rest of the cast give memorable performances, and it is fun to see fictional depictions of Charles Manson, Bruce Lee, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. It is fun to see the Manson family get torched by a flamethrower and have their heads bashed in. But, as a result of narrative and character choices made by Tarantino, that is precisely the very climax of the film: fun.

And, maybe fun is enough. Maybe that is what puts bodies into movie theaters in the Netflix age. But, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” sure had the potential to be a bit more than just fun.

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