As one of Tarantino’s last films before signing off for retirement, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood should have been more well-received than it was. Trotting Quentin’s usual arrangement of cowboys, Nazis, and flamethrowers, for a 3-hour movie, it was pretty much completely devoid of a story. For instance, if you didn’t know who Sharon Tate was or the Manson Family, or about the Spahn Ranch, then this may have been the most nonsensical movie Quentin ever made. Alas, QT’s foot fetish is alive and well in this 2019 “classic,” bordering on making fun of himself and his older movies, as it tells the story of life in the 60s, Old Hollywood, and a sweet tale of friendship between characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.
As others have already noted, this is a Nostalgia movie. Some would say you would have had to have lived in the 60s to really “get it,” but Quentin Tarantino has done a fantastic job of capturing the period for the ones who didn’t. From the bus stop ads to the music, sentimental shots of Cliff driving down Forest Lawn Drive, QT has captured the flavor of Los Angeles in its time. Unfortunately, apart from the scenic portrait and the odd joke here and there, this screenplay was bland and slightly boring throughout. Whatever happened to the enigmatic dialogue that Quentin used to write? You’ll have to hit pause an hour in just to stop and ask yourself, “Is anything going to happen?” And something does happen, it’s just a slow drive getting there.
One “Boomer” wrote:
“Really frustrating on Twitter reading a lot of the young people’s views on this movie. Most of them don’t get this movie because they are uninformed about history. They don’t know the background and story of the Charles Manson Family, Spahn Ranch, their connection to Sharon Tate and the location of where Sharon Tate lived which was the home of Terry Melcher prior to Sharon Tate living there. Terry Melcher was Doris Day’s son and he was a record producer who rejected Charles Manson’s music career aspirations. Charles Manson was looking for revenge and even though Melcher moved, Manson still hated the rich Hollywood elite and so he sent his family member’s there to kill everyone there anyhow. In this movie, Leo changed their target after he walked outside and confronted them while drunk and holding a blender!”
Like any good essay or article, a screenplay should not rely on the viewer’s past knowledge of a subject for it to be enjoyable. This isn’t a purely historical account either. Rick and Cliff, while loosely based on Burt Reynolds’ and Haal Needham’s relationship as actor and stunt double, are largely fictional, and so the subtext needs to be spelled out for the audience. We can’t expect an entire audience to have read ‘Helter Skelter’ in order to enjoy this film, otherwise you would have to admit that it’s a pretty crappy film. The only part in this movie that I think it would be especially beneficial to have an understanding of the accounts of that summer night on August 8, 1969, would be the ending, which I won’t spoil.
With all of that said, if you are looking to see a film adaptation of ‘Helter Skelter’ and the events of Spahn Ranch and the Manson Family, then this movie is not for you. The Tate-LaBianca murders play a very small plot point of this movie, which makes for a bit of a disappointment since that is the climax and the apparent thing that the entire movie is building up to. That’s just it though; there is no buildup, or even a storyline for that matter. I’ve heard things like, “It’s not supposed to be a story movie,” or even, “it’s a character analysis.” Well, I don’t know about you, but last time I heard, movies were supposed to have a story. That was the central problem with Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. I think it was made pretty clear before I watched it that it wasn’t going to be about Manson, but I’m still let down by this movie anyways. Why wouldn’t Tarantino have just made ‘Helter Skelter,’ based on Bugliosi’s accounts, and get to make a movie with an actual story/plot. He had all the materials, actors, and creative direction, but none of the output. I like that QT explores genres in each film, but in this case, I think he should have stuck to doing what he does well, which is chilling horror.
They had a pretty good actor to play Manson, too. I think this would have been a better film had he been used more, but unfortunately, he was only used for a few scenes, which seems like a bit of a waste. Overall, the acting in this film was wonderful and one of the greatest things about it. Some might say that Margot Robbie’s talents weren’t exercised enough in this film, but I would have to respectfully disagree with that. I think she did a beautiful job of playing Sharon Tate in this movie, as well as all the actors who played a respective role to a real-life character. Leonardo DiCaprio was terrific and Brad Pitt was badass as ever. As a send-off performance, Luke Perry was great as well. But what was probably the best of all performances in this movie was given by 11-year-old Julia Butlers who had incredible on-screen chemistry with Leonardo’s character.
For a 3-hour movie, it could be said that this movie was actually too short. Quentin Tarantino does an excellent job of showing things happening on screen without anything actually happening. A lot of the events of the film were pointless and brought no real meaning to the story if there ever was one. For example, there is a lot of dialogue about this supposed “acid-dipped cigarette” that Cliff will eventually smoke, but it isn’t ever really elaborated on at all. While high, he fights like Cliff always does, and it doesn’t seem to affect him in any way. A 4-hour Director’s Cut is going to be released soon, but I doubt there will be any story in there either. Wouldn’t that be a laugh? The entire story was cut to make more room for flamethrowers and dirty feet. That’s all anybody really wanted to see anyways.
There were a couple of things about this movie that didn’t make sense, either. Like how Sharon Tate’s character puts up her feet in the movie theater, and they are just filthy. I get that this movie is set in the 1960s, and that’s how things were back then, but hardly anybody ever took off their shoes in a movie theatre. The floors are sticky and disgusting. If anybody was going to walk into a movie theatre barefoot, it surely wouldn’t have been an A-list celebrity like Sharon Tate. And in the scene when Cliff Booth is supposed to be shot, it is a crucial moment in the film. He drops to the ground and stops moving, so you would think that the bullet had gone through him, but alas, later on when you see him in the ambulance, he’s doing just fine talking as if nothing even happened. Then there was Rick’s motivation to using the flamethrower in the last scene, which I didn’t buy at all. It would have made more sense for him to realize what was happening inside the house before just getting up and setting this lady’s face on fire. Or better yet, how about having Brad Pitt’s character not pass out, and then have him be the one to use the blow torch with Rick being confused as he was, and then play out the same scene in the ambulance. Suddenly, it all makes sense and the plot holes aren’t as noticeable.
In summary, this movie was hilarious, had all the right Tarantino-esque scenes played out, great acting, and zero story. This could actually be seen in a positive light if you want it to, like re-inventing movies. Welcome to 2020: The dystopian reality of movies that are just series of cinematography with good music. Like, really good music. Using the original Batman music in the end was a nice touch. People said that you needed to really “know the history” to love this movie, but that was just it for me. I knew the history, read Helter Skelter from front to back, and I still didn’t think it was the masterpiece that some people say it is. It’s actually sad to think that this is what people call a masterpiece these days, but it is what it is. It was a pretty movie with good acting and a cathartic ending, but one that also leaves you begging the question, “What did I just watch?” You may feel robbed of your 3 hours or you may feel better for having had the experience. Either way, you’re still going to see Kill Bill 3 when it comes out.