THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
With awards season in full swing, many critics and fans have posted their rankings of the best films of 2019. Invariably, these lists name a consistent group of movie that are expected to slide right up to the Oscar podium in a few weeks time. One such film is Quentin Tarantino‘s ninth film, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, which has been lauded by many as a masterpiece. Having seen the movie when it initially hit theaters and again on the recent 4K release, there are a lot of elements to the movie that are quite good, but not only is it one of the most overrated movies of last year but overall it is one of if not the weakest entries in Tarantino’s ouvre.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a prime example of excess. From the almost three hour run-time to the unnecessarily drawn out driving sequences, Quentin Tarantino‘s first non-Weinsten produced film showcases a filmmaker without anyone serving as a sounding board on where he could have trimmed or tightened things up. Despite two leads delivering some of the best performances of their careers, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is two-thirds of a great movie with the rest a virtually incomprehensible mess. At times, it feels like Tarantino had the germination of an idea for three different movies and when he couldn’t flesh them out individually, he crammed them all together.
Quentin Tarantino is an absolute fan of cinema, that is clearly apparent. The era of Hollywood in which this film is set is meticulously realized on screen and the research involved to populate the real actors and filmmakers that serve as supporting players is quite impressive. But, a film that revels in these kinds of minute details cannot sacrifice the big picture. Namely, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a mish-mosh of genres, styles, and techniques and not in a good way. Where Tarantino used INGLORIOUS BASTERDS as a send-up of B-movie war flicks through the lens of revisionist history, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is wonderfully grounded in a realistic and historically accurate narrative until the final act goes completely and nonsensically off the rails. There really is no benefit to the story sparing Sharon Tate and having Charles Manson’s acolytes brutally dispatched by Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton outside of some sort of torture porn. Did these horrendous cult members deserve to be burned alive? Absolutely, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film.
The best elements of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD are Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Pitt’s aged stuntman, Cliff Booth, is a fascinating character and wholly deserving in his recent Golden Globe win. There are so many tidbits to his character like the murder of his wife to his resume on screen that make him engaging in every frame. Even his visit to the Spahn Ranch is one of the most intense sequences that Tarantino has ever put on screen. The showdown with Bruce Lee is another great moment and I could have watched the entire film focused wholly on Cliff, but with the storylines for Rick and Sharon Tate mixed in, the ending feels rushed and cobbled together and missing a satisfying conclusion for him. Yes, he is a supporting character in some ways to Rick Dalton, but Brad Pitt‘s screen time and presence elevates Cliff to more than that and Tarantino never makes him worthy.
One of the biggest problems with ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is Sharon Tate. While I found Margot Robbie well suited for the role and her performance was solid, her character serves no purpose in this film. While her rise to fame matches Rick Dalton’s fall from the limelight and their connection thanks to Cliff dispatching the Manson family leads to an off screen happy ending, this fairy tale ends up feeling contrived. Quentin Tarantino clearly had a desire to realize the Sharon Tate/Manson tale on screen but it was nothing more than an aside scribbled on a note or at least that is how it comes across. All of the Sharon Tate scenes could be excised and the film would be no worse off. This is such a shame since Margot Robbie commands the screen any time she is on it, she is just arbitrary. On the flipside, Rick Dalton’s story is a great one that could have used those extra minutes on screen.
With another great soundtrack to his credit, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD feels like it is an hour too long with an ending that just doesn’t fit. Boasting the most star-studded cast he has ever worked with, this movie feels like it should have been an HBO even series rather than a single film. Tarantino has cut his prior movie, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, into a Netflix mini-series which allows for the excess to not feel, well, excessive. There are so many scenes in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD that feel unneccessary and do nothing to further the plot, not to mention the randomly placed voice-over in the first half of the film that becomes far more prevalent in the second half. So much of this film is disjointed and all over the place.
With Quentin Tarantino teasing a 4 hour cut of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD could be coming in 2021, the biggest question is why? From DEATH PROOF to JACKIE BROWN, PULP FICTION to DJANGO UNCHAINED and all of Tarantino’s other films, I can sit down and watch them beginning to end as many times as I am able. Whether I catch them midway through on cable or play them from disc, none of his films ever have felt slow, dragged out, or anything less than entertaining. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is the first Quentin Tarantino film that I can only watch in clips and segments because taken as a whole, it is not nearly as good.