Quentin Tarantino is known for his lengthy, self-indulgent movies – some of which I’ve loved, some not so much. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a nostalgic homage to 1960s Hollywood and, at 2 hours 41 minutes, it is certainly lengthy and self-indulgent. But, despite some outstanding performances, it’s probably at least an hour too long, and proved to be a real test of my patience and endurance.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a TV and movie star best known for repeatedly saving the day in the now cancelled TV show ‘Bounty Law’, where he played a classic screen cowboy. Rick is struggling to come to terms with his fading career, and the feeling that Hollywood is moving on without him. His best, and only friend, is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who has been Rick’s stunt double over the years. Work for Cliff has dried up following rumours that he murdered his wife and Cliff now spends his days as Rick’s driver, odd-job man and general shoulder to cry on. He seems fairly relaxed about his simple lifestyle though – returning each evening to his trailer, and faithful canine companion Brandy, before picking Rick up bright and early the next day in order to drive him to whatever production set he’s currently working at.
Meanwhile, successful young actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) has moved in next door to Rick along with her husband, director Roman Polanski. This is the area where Tarantino weaves fact with fiction and if you’re not familiar with the Manson murders of 1969, it’s probably worth reading up on a little bit before heading into the movie. On the night of 9 August 1969, three followers of cult leader Charles Manson entered the home of a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate and brutally murdered her and the friends who were with her at the time. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood begins a few months before those events, and then takes its sweet time in slowly building towards it.
If it weren’t for the performances of everyone involved, this would have been a much harder watch for me. Brad Pitt is the best I’ve seen him for a long time here, all smiles and laid-back charm, a real interesting and enjoyable character. Leonardo DiCaprio is also on fine form as the broken man struggling to cling to fame and when the two are together, they’re a lot of fun. Margot Robbie, has far less to do in her parallel story-line, but still manages to shine in her charismatic portrayal of Tate.
What does make the movie harder to watch is the run-time and, as I said right at the start, I feel this definitely could have benefited from at least an hour being chopped. Sunny LA during the 1960s is beautiful to look at, and when we’re following Rick and Cliff as they cruise around town in their car it’s nostalgic, vibrant and wonderful to watch. But, we get to follow the characters around town in their cars quite a lot in this movie. And, on top of that, literally every scene, no matter how significant, irrelevant or weak it may be, is dragged out far longer than it needs to be. The great scenes become diluted, and the scenes where nothing much was happening anyway, just become frustrating and hard work to hold your attention.
Along the way, our characters occasionally and unknowingly cross paths with the hippies who form Charles Manson’s cult at Spahn Ranch. Cliff even has a uneasy standoff with a group of them at the ranch itself in one of the better scenes of the movie. It’s these suspenseful moments that increase the tension perfectly, stoking the sense of foreboding and providing a constant reminder of the death and destruction set to come. The final 15 minutes or so do provide us with some intense, violent madness – a real wake up call after the meandering, often floundering, plot-lines of the movie up until that point. As always with Tarantino movies, there’s plenty to digest, dissect and discuss but I certainly won’t be revisiting this one any time soon.