Framed as something of a fable of the late 60s through mid 70s Hollywood scene amidst the rise of hippies and the counterculture movement in America, loosely based on circumstances surrounding the infamous Charles Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and her friends at the residence of Roman Polansky, "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood" continues Quentin Tarantino's fortunate track record of being a masterful filmmaker as well as his unfortunate track record of being a scattershot storyteller.
Playing out several meandering plot threads buoyed by the story of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) as he attempts to cling to his relevance in popular culture as an actor by taking a chance on starring in spaghetti westerns with the help of his best friend, personal assistant, and stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the film contains one storyline so thoughtful, intimate and personal that it makes the two and a half hour long film worth the price of admission alone.
Dalton's struggle to reconcile his capabilities as an actor with the relevance of his place in popular culture drags him through peek episodes of anxiety that he's only able to properly reflect upon when transitioning from the handsome leading man starring role of a western television series to the moral complexity and three dimensional role of a villain in the deconstructionist spaghetti western, evolving his career into worthwhile territories that he had never before considered while struggling to compose himself in the face of his insecurities is legitimately compelling whenever it rears its head.
In crafting it, Tarantino achieves a brilliant performance out of Dicaprio that's exaggerated just enough to display the larger than life persona such a man falls into as a coping mechanism without being explicitly comedic which makes every bout of anxiety he displays uncomfortably relatable.
Bolstering that story is Dicaprio's dynamite chemistry with Pitt's mellow, cool, and collected leading man stereotype with whom he serves as a foil, and a generally intimate attention to detail that feels more personal and sincere than anything that Tarantino has made in almost 2 decades. As stupendous as the filmmaking on display is however, whatever maturity in his craft the director seems to be displaying falls to the wayside in the name of extreme self-indulgence bordering on self sabotage.
Whatever thematic statement "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" seems to want to make about its setting becomes muddled by the lack of practical application that the Sharon Tate murders really have on the story itself. At best, the film winds up with almost 35 to 40 minutes of content wasted on underdeveloped concepts that don't work in conjunction with the rest of the film. At its worst, however, the movie becomes almost distracting in its contextless reverence for the era of Hollywood it's set in, highlighted no more perfectly than in a bizarrely empty and wasted performance by Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, whom describing as a glorified extra within the film would be putting it mildly.
To Tarantino's credit, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" does more than occasionally feel like the most passionate project that he has worked on in quite some time. While it definitely has a lot to offer however, the indulgences of its creator, felt in its excessive length and borderline appalling climax and ending are very tragically likely to hold it back from gaining a wider audience than it possibly deserves.
4 out of 5 stars
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.