REVIEW: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Doesn’t Live Up to its Strong Cast

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

From Pulp Fiction to Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has cemented his legacy as one of the most iconic American directors. He’s gathered an immense fanbase from both the eight films that he’s directed and many of the other films he’s been a part of. Since it was announced back in  2017, his ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was one to look out for this year. With an all-star cast and very little of the plot revealed prior to the film’s release, it was hard to hide my anticipation for this film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former star of a hit western television series, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they try to regain fame in the film industry. Neither Dalton or Booth have found success after the end of the show. While Booth tries to bolster Dalton’s confidence, he clearly has his own dilemmas he has to work on. Meanwhile, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) move in next door to Dalton’s house leading Dalton to seek befriending Polanski and Tate in order to regain his leading man status. However, his plans become complicated due to Charles Manson (Damon Herriman).

With this being DiCaprio and Pitt’s first time sharing scenes together, I was looking forward to seeing what sort of chemistry they would have. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood quickly surprised me with just how close both Dalton and Booth were. Seeing an actor and stuntman being close friends isn’t seen very often, regardless of how many real friendships develop on sets. But the film does a good job of showing that their relationship is much more than that. They became friends even after the show ended, even though Dalton was still Booth’s employer and by the end of the film, both share a bond that transcends even that of a traditional friendship. Their chemistry is never forced, making it seem as if DiCaprio and Pitt have been in countless films together.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Outside of the focus on Pitt and DiCaprio’s characters, the majority of this film quickly proves to be a love letter to the 1960s. Aside from the many famous figures that dominated Hollywood during this time, the different places shown in the film do an incredible job depicting life during this time.

From the parties at the Playboy Mansion to the drive-in that Booth lives next to, these are a few of the aspects that show the aesthetic that you would expect from 1960s Hollywood. The wardrobe for all the actors in the film fit perfectly within the clothing style of the time period and the attention to detail in the clothing really stood out, especially the use of floral patterns and different colors. Most of the costumes that Robbie wore were replicas of clothes that Tate wore. Every time she’s on screen, her costume reflected her bubbly personality.

However, the film mainly centers around white-male stardom and makes everything else seem unimportant. There’s a scene where Dalton begins to cry because of the decline in his career, to which Booth responds by saying, “Don’t let the Mexicans see you crying.” It’s meant to be taken as a joke but it’s at the expense of Mexicans. It’s no secret that the the Mexican-American population living in the U.S. have historically been victims of systemic oppression. This joke makes it seem as if it’s a sign of weakness for Dalton, a white guy, to show any emotion around them. I would have hoped that the film wouldn’t resort to these kinds of jokes.

On top of this, the only character of color, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), is utterly humiliated by Booth’s character in a fight. One would expect a world-renowned martial artist like Bruce Lee to make quick work of anyone. But Booth somehow manages to get the upper hand without any difficulty. Lee tries to play it off as if he was going easy on him, but he clearly looks embarrassed. And let’s be honest, it’s very strange to imagine someone being able to humiliate Bruce Lee in a fight.

One of the constant criticisms that Tarantino’s films receive is his not so subtle offensive humor. One instance that’s meant to be taken for laughs is when Booth is talking about what happened to his wife. His reputation was tarnished after he was accused of murdering his wife while they were on a boating trip – a reference to Natalie Woods death we can assume. His wife is depicted as a constantly nagging him and the scene plays off as if we’re supposed to laugh about what happened to her. It seems wild to think that scenes like this are still being shot in 2019, but I’m quickly reminded who directed the film. This scene could have been much more impactful had it not been used as a comedic moment.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Even before the film was officially released, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood managed to gain negative publicity. During the film’s debut at the Canne’s Film Festival, Tarantino rejected to answer why Robbie’s character had very little lines. I hoped this wasn’t the case, but the film depicts Sharon as just a woman who admires her on-screen performance. I’m not going to pretend like I know a lot about Sharon Tate or the events leading up to her death, but there must have been so much more to who she was.

While Robbie provided a much more detailed response to the question, her character in the film seemed unimportant. Given some of the other prominent roles that Robbie has had in the last two year, I would imagine she could have brought depth to her character.

In films like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has chosen to depict historical moments with some alternative changes. Whether it was blowing up a plantation or putting an end to Hitler, changing history isn’t something that he shies away from. I don’t quite understand the need to change historical moments for the sake of entertainment. To this point, Tarantino changes major aspects of history in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and they don’t come without their fair share of controversies.

The Sharon Tate murder and the events leading up to it is still very much a tragedy and talked about today. By the title, one can assume that the film is meant to be taken as a sort of fairytale, but the murders weren’t. Pretending like they didn’t takes away the impact that they had. The events leading up to the murder go from just being in the background to playing an important part in the overall narrative, especially towards the end of the film. Placing two characters like Dalton and Booth in the events would be fine, had major events not been changed. They’re the unsung heroes that were able to stop the murders. Changing the outcome of the event is a lack of respect, especially since it seems to be playing off as a traditional fairytale ending.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

While there are certainly some entertaining aspects of the film and the chemistry between the two leading men is exceptional, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is ultimately a bland film that celebrates the stardom of white-male actors. Had there been more focus on actors of color other than Bruce Lee, it would be easier to categorize this as a celebration of Hollywood stardom. However, the film decided to make the Bruce Lee character more comedic, taking any real importance away from his part in the film.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood could have also benefited from focusing more on Sharon’s acting career. The plot of two actors seeking ways to get back into the limelight seems a bit overdone. It plays off as a fascination with male stardom rather than with Hollywood in general. This surprised me, especially with the talent in this film.

I wouldn’t have watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood if I knew it would be focusing on the glorification of white-male stardom and not on the different aspects of Hollywood during 1969. It’s disappointing since there was a lot of buzz surrounding the film. Truthfully, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood could have benefited much more had it taken a different approach. The element of surprise could have taken this film to bigger heights but ultimately couldn’t deliver.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now playing in cinemas worldwide.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
  • 4/10
    Rating - 4/10
4/10

TL;DR

Truthfully, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood could have benefited much more had it taken a different approach. The element of surprise could have taken this film to bigger heights but ultimately couldn’t deliver.