Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Score: B

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino

Running Time: 161 Minutes

Rated: R

"It's official, old buddy. I'm a has-been," Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells Cliff (Brad Pitt) early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If people recognize Rick at all, it's for a long-ago-canceled Western series called Bounty Law. No one recognizes his neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), but her star is on the ascent. By the end of the film, their paths will intersect, though only in a way Quentin Tarantino could have imagined.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino's most straightforward film to date. It doesn't begin with a classic dialogue scene, an iconic shot or an action set-piece. It starts with Rick meeting film producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who wants to put Rick in a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci, despite Rick's clear objections. It's only pride keeping him from saying yes, and eventually, he agrees. But the journey to get there is slow-going, especially for the audience. This is the first Tarantino movie that drags at the outset instead of the midsection.

The film unfolds over three important days in 1969: February 8, when Rick meets Marvin; February 9, when Rick films a pilot and Cliff meets the followers of Charles Manson; and August 9, when violence comes to Rick and Sharon's cul-de-sac. There are flashbacks, of course, but no crazy jumbled chronology. A lot of QT's hallmarks are present: the great soundtrack, the quippy dialogue, and yes, the close-ups of bare feet. But there are times when it feels like he fetishized the little details – like food packaging, TV ads, and radio chatter – that he lost sight of the story. The journeys of these three characters overlap in interesting ways, but it seems to add up to little more than, "Well, that was kinda weird."

Yet I find myself fascinated all the same. This is one of DiCaprio's best performances to date. We all know he can go to the extreme (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Revenant), but this is one of his most vulnerable and intriguing turns since Catch Me If You Can. Rick is complacent until Marvin and one of his pint-sized co-stars give him the honesty and confidence he needs to kick his second act into high gear. And Pitt is effortlessly cool as his best friend, occasionally living out Rick's on-screen exploits in real life.

And then there's Robbie. She's certainly wonderful as Sharon Tate, especially in a scene where she watches her performance in the Matt Helm flick The Wrecking Crew, taking in the audience reaction to her comedic timing and physical prowess. But she has so little impact on the main story that it's ultimately hard to figure out the point of having her in here at all. Taking her scenes out would no doubt make this a weaker film, but Tarantino didn't give her enough to feel like including her has made for a better film.

So yes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a bit of a mixed bag. Yet there's so much good here – including Cliff's misadventures on the set of The Green Hornet, Rick righteously using a flamethrower, and one very good dog – it still feels like a success, especially in the midst of such a disappointing summer.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.