It's beautifully shot, has a stellar cast, and is helmed by one of the most talented and iconic directors of the past century. Hell, this box office beauty even wrangled in ten Oscar nominations and two wins for the categories of Best Supporting Actor and Best Production Design.
It's funny, unique, and features one of the Manson girls being torched alive via flamethrower by Leonardo DiCaprio. What's not to love? More to the point, what's not to like? Even if, say, by principle I disagree with Tarantino's more controversial choice to rewrite a historical tragedy--which, being an avid fan of Inglorious Basterds, I do not take immediate issue with--surely I can just kick back and appreciate the movie on a shallower level of crowd-pleasing enjoyment. Right?
Sorry, but no dice. Because while I love Tarantino's body of work and can understand why this film is so immediately iconic, I will never be able to force myself into genuinely liking a film that is so lackluster when placed among the pantheon of this director's other classics.
To clarify my point: it's not that this is a bad film, but rather that it's an okay film with an exorbitant price tag that flies in the face of far better projects that more rightfully deserve their places in cinematic memory.
Yes, on a production level, the film ticks all the marks. It's flashy, groovy, and accurate to the time period. It's prettier than a picture, but what else would you expect from a film with a budget of over ninety million dollars and Tarantino in the director's seat?
However, where the film really begins to fall apart is in its writing. While the punchy, cheeky dialogue between DiCaprio's Rick Dalton and Pitt's Cliff Booth is enjoyable enough, the script lacks the precision and power that is so quintessential of Tarantino's films. There is no perfectly choreographed, edge-of-your-seat moment like DiCaprio's "Old Ben" monologue in Django Unchained, where the actor became so impassioned by the riveting dialogue he'd been gifted that he accidentally smashed his hand full of glass yet kept on with the scene. There is no moment like the incredible "Three" scene towards the opening moments of Inglorious Basterds, which in and of itself is just one masterful moment among dozens in a narrative where Tarantino rewrites history with gusto and, more pertinently, purpose.
In these films, Tarantino inserts his own deranged, exploitative twist into history with such care and intention that the insanity and outright goofiness serves to compliment the strength of the drama that lies beneath. In his other films, there is a weight and direction to the action. We are being led on an adventure, treacherous and ridiculous, and there is a harrowing destination in mind that we are cartwheeling and waltzing towards in tremendous style. There is obvious care out into the dialogue between characters, the value of each and every scene, and the way that the entire project works cohesively together to create something harmonious and memorable.
In the case of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the trajectory of the plot meanders up, up, up, and nowhere. Scenes lazily unfold that, while entertaining enough, really add nothing of particular value to the story. Interactions take place in ways that even I, as an amateur film spectator with my hand shoved into a bowl of pretzel popcorn, can recognize as far less effective than intended.
Essentially, this is a film that lacks a hard thematic point, other than perhaps Tarantino's impulse to re-assert dominance in Hollywood and work within one of his favorite cultural periods. This, in turn, takes a severe toll on the quality of the script, as there's no concrete end goal, plot target, or ultimate theme that is being achieved by this project.
Again, as harsh as I may sound, I am not suggesting that this project is an out-and-out bad film. It's simply frustrating that this frankly messy movie, which has gained so much positive reception from audiences because of its branding as another Tarantino masterpiece, is being placed in the same league as the masterworks that are Inglorious Basterds or Kill Bill.
Let's just say that my harshness towards this project is an equal and proportional response to its undeserved level of acclaim by both moviegoers and the Academy.
Now that you've tuned into my two cents, and are likely done with my contrarian whining about a movie that nobody else seems to have kicked up fuss about, I'll leave you with this final verdict:
If a film is a form of expression, this particular movie is a half-formed dream of nostalgia over two genres--the Western and the '70s exploitation film--with lots of hot air and nothing much else to say apart from "remember the time when.." Or in this case, "once upon a time in..."
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