Will the fanboy ever grow up?
I may be in a small minority that considers Quentin Tarantino to be highly overrated. I find his movies, with the exception of Pulp Fiction, bloated, self-indulgent, and not particularly witty. This latest one sounded promising, a movie about Hollywood by the biggest movie nerd ever. Alas, even though this meandering, mostly boring film is peppered with cameos by wonderful actors, it‘s a huge nothingburger.
As its title suggests, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, a fantasy inspired in part by the cheesy westerns of Sergio Leone. So I expected more insight on the surreal, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing interaction between reality and make believe, which is how movies, which are our present day myths, get made. But Tarantino doesn’t go beyond the facile. What little insight he brings is to how people behind the scenes make insecure actors seem bigger than life.
Leonardo DiCaprio is funny and dead on as Rick Dalton, a washed up movie star, now doing second banana roles on TV shows, and Brad Pitt oozes charm as Cliff Booth, his stuntman and best buddy. Dalton is all hat and no cattle, whereas the joke is that his stuntman, who looks like Brad Pitt, can actually do the heroics in real life, and is not interested in being a movie star; he’s not a needy, insecure egomaniac. Both DiCaprio and Pitt try hard to inject verve and wit into this sloppy tale. I found it curious then, that the movie has a mean streak against actors. At least in this case they are the only ones making the movie come alive.
Other movies are better windows into what makes Hollywood tick, from Sunset Blvd., to The Player, to The Disaster Artist, to Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!. In fact, I couldn’t help but think of the Coen Brothers. They parlay their passion for cinematic tropes and genres with more craftsmanship, originality, and wit. Tarantino is like an idiot savant. He obsesses in the minutest detail about second rate films, but he has nothing of real substance to offer. His obsessive love for cheesy movie genres remains hermetic, and it’s starting to feel claustrophobic. It’s like going into his teenage closet and peering at his dusty memorabilia: it gets old.
Tarantino creates elaborate revenge fantasies aimed at evil people like nazis and slave holders using his passion and encyclopedic knowledge of film lore, as he did in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his dalliance with cheesy TV shows from the 50s and 60s and Spaghetti Westerns. But other than painstakingly recreating the tropes of stilted cowboy shows, and obsessing about the pop minutiae of the era, it feels like an airless enterprise. No amount of an epochal rock and pop soundtrack can distract from the fact that the movie is a soporific mess. As in every Tarantino movie, there is a smattering of good scenes. One has Dalton berating himself in his trailer for forgetting his lines. DiCaprio is funny, campy, vulnerable, and committed to the hilt. The other one is a scene between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, who steals the show.
Other than that, it takes forever to get to the meat of the movie, which is basically a giant punchline: what if fate had taken a different turn for Sharon Tate and her friends, who happen to be Rick’s next-door neighbors? It’s a bracing idea, but Tarantino can’t bother with the self-discipline required to shape the exasperating shaggy dog story he concocts around the Manson murders into an entertaining, well-paced yarn. I dreaded the possibility that he was going to exploit the grisly murders, and he does, but not quite the way one fears. The most moving scene in the film is when Sharon Tate (the excellent Margot Robbie) goes into a movie theater to watch herself in a comedy she made with Dean Martin. Tarantino uses the actual footage with the real Sharon Tate, which is heartbreaking, and shows Tate, played by Robbie, giddily surprised at the laughter she elicits in the audience. She discovers her own magical powers as an actor. It’s a lovely scene and it just makes you feel worse for what happened to her.
Tarantino understands that movies wield enormous power over us. I’m not sure that he gets the enormous responsibility movies should wield in kind. I did not love Inglorious Basterds but I certainly enjoyed the beating the crap out of the Nazis and the alternate ending to the Holocaust. That was one satisfying, yet short lived fantasy, because we cheer the violence against the Nazis and then we remember that in real life they got away with it, and then some. This makes the fantasy all the more hollow, bitter, and ultimately childish. The same thing happens in this movie. Revenge fantasies are a bit like junk food. They taste good at first and then they don’t sit well with you. Call it moral indigestion.
Towards the end, one of the Manson girls makes a facile, forced little speech in which she claims that she learned to kill from movies and TV, so now she’s gonna show ‘em. If the line is intended ironically, I failed to grasp it. Here is one of the most notoriously violent filmmakers in history having a Manson runt deliver a credo against violence in movies. Then Tarantino unleashes the godawful violence that he has been priming the audience towards for almost three hours so that like Pavlov’s dog, we’re almost salivating for it because it’s the good guys against the bad guys. We cheer for it because the Manson clan deserved as good as it gave. Still, those Manson girls were idiots but it’s shocking, and not in a good way, to watch the appalling graphic violence against them. I have always been disturbed by the unabashed erotic glee Tarantino gets from violence. Like the cheap movies he chooses to idolize, it feels exploitative.