Arts and Entertainment

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”: A Modern Buddy Western, But Nothing More

An analysis of the appeal, and the failures, of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film.

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The best kind of period drama is one that tugs at your heartstrings for an era gone by, even if you weren’t alive to see it. That’s exactly the case with Quentin Tarantino’s latest hype, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Ever the romanticist, Tarantino has imbued us with a longing for the Hollywood of yore with drive-in theaters, sleek cars, neon signs, and an abundance of hippies.

While Tarantino has managed to maintain his wittiness and command on-screen, the film is lacking, even for the casual viewer. That’s not to say that there isn’t much to love about it, however, and even more so if you have time to unpack its slew of nearly obscure references reserved for movie buffs.

The stars of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” are none other than Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who act as brotherly duo Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. Dalton, the former star of the 1950s Western show, “Bounty Law,” is fearful of falling behind in the industry, while his stunt double Booth struggles to get a job after the death of his wife, whom he is rumored to have murdered. Together, Dalton and Booth, while fictional, seem very real in their 1969 environment, realized by from their banter to their shared gathering of their bearings to their corny middle-aged men dialogue. Adding to the heart that their relationship brings to the film is the fact that Dalton is prone to crying at any time, and Booth is also Dalton’s designated driver/drinking buddy/electrician/therapist/best friend.

Stitched between Dalton and Booth’s comical interactions with each other and their co-workers, Tarantino intersperses the main action with side stories concerning period-specific names like Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Steve McQueen, Charles Manson, and Bruce Lee. Just for fun, Tarantino gives Al Pacino a small role as Dalton’s spaghetti western-loving casting agent, and Kurt Russell has some roleplay as an unnecessary narrator for the film.

For those who expected the quintessential Tarantino classic—a movie rife with violence, meticulous attention to history, and then a warping of history, plus great acting and the graininess of good ol’ 35mm film—“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has all these things. For the casual viewer who just wants to see Brad Pitt being Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio not being a strong, independent man, and are curious to see what would have happened if 1969 didn’t end the way it did, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has all these things.

For once, both sides are united. This is a genuinely good first. Things get a little hazy when the film passes its middle mark (it’s 161 minutes long). It starts to feel long, but like most of Tarantino’s films, it gives that constant sense of something bigger looming on the horizon. Unlike its predecessors however, this one never makes it back full circle, not even with a witty quip by Dalton or Booth. Instead, viewers are left with a heap of dissatisfaction long before the film is over. The action invariably slows down at some point, succumbing to dialogue attempting to be enigmatic and the promise that something will go wrong. It turns out that nothing goes wrong and we all just got psychologically spooked about a sidequest surrounded by a mysterious aura characterized by serial killers. Then the story winds back up again like nothing ever happened, but leaves viewers uneasy, warily laughing at whatever other wonky misfortunes come upon the film’s cast. The film ends just as badly, giving viewers little in the way of a resolution following an adrenaline-fueled sequence and actor business that just doesn’t match the urgency of what had happened.

More attention is paid to Tarantino’s childhood memories living in Los Angeles, aesthetics, and his love of historical dramedy, and there’s certainly superb acting and visuals to boot. Unfortunately, other things like a strong main narrative and any serious undertone that the movie hinted at fell flat. The climax isn’t really a climax when you realize it’s over, the rest of the star-studded ensemble is uncharacteristically left to the wayside, and the only real thing for solace is how well Tarantino films everything, from Rick Dalton’s fake movie clips to Cliff Booth kicking some butt.

Don’t watch this film like it’s going to be a classic. It’s more of a buddy western with a wholesome friendship and big names thrown in. Only some really good popcorn might keep you going with this one.