Few have garnered a cult following quite like that of Quentin Tarantino, who sculpted a staple genre that is equal parts dark and humorous. In his ninth film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Tarantino catalogues the ephemeral nature of mid-20th century Hollywood in his signature zany style. Although Tarantino’s latest blockbuster resulted in the writer-director’s biggest box office opening yet, it lacks the originality that his other works boast.
The film follows the exploits of both fictional characters, like Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and characters based on real people, like actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a victim of the Manson family murders. As Tarantino intertwines his imagination and reality, the audience must parse the true personalities of the characters through bits of secondhand celebrity gossip. Tarantino employs a narrator who, often in a gimmicky and sporadic fashion, questions the reliability of the characters. In these ways, we are first introduced to the idea that each character lives in a state of delusion.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” shades the relentless pursuit of fleeting youth. Dalton, an aging Western actor, must grapple with his declining popularity and marketability in the entertainment industry, but is consumed by his desire to stay relevant. Booth, Dalton’s stuntman, obsessively tries to prove his physical fitness by engaging in fights with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and the Mansons. And Tate, a budding television actress, blissfully enjoys the height of her fledgling career.
In Tarantino’s Hollywood, youth is a commodity, and few are aware of its impermanence. The first two and a half acts of the film are just exposition. However, this allows us to examine the characters closely as they wrestle with their immaturity and digest the vibrant Californian landscape. An underaged hippie in a rainbow top tries to seduce Booth. Neon signs spill over George Spahn’s (Bruce Dern) ranch, where the ancient namesake landowner lives with the rainbow-topped hippie and a hoard of others who love him. Dalton and Booth get high and drunk, and wallow in the misery of acting in cheesy, knockoff Italian cowboy movies called “spaghetti Westerns.” And ultimately, Dalton panders acting advice from an 8-year-old. Through recurring motifs of youth, we gain insight into the character’s motivations and the flaws that make them more captivating.
The humor, too, is juvenile, with low-brow jokes that rely on physicality and zingy one-liners for punchlines. There are blowtorches and burned corpses. Punching and bloody noses. A dog even bites a man’s genitals. Such scenes are not for the faint of heart, but any fan of Tarantino knows that they are nothing out of the ordinary for the director, who has stylized violence throughout his career. In fact, it’s part of his appeal. Tarantino fans know to expect gory scenes, non-linear story lines, surprise endings, and equally colorful language and settings.
Still, the repetition of these elements throughout his films seems especially canned in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” The director is upheld for his boundary-pushing creativity in “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Kill Bill,” which draw inspiration for action scenes from animated films, cutting heavy dialogue with sardonic commentary and making us root for characters who would usually be “bad guys.” And while these techniques briefly injected Hollywood with a newfound sense of innovation, Tarantino’s biggest enemy is currently himself. His style may have inspired a whole generation of imitators, but has matured into something more blasé in the process. Although one could argue that the inclusion of a narrative style here does add something different, the director misses the mark by playing it too safe with the same slurry of techniques.
His signature style seems especially forced toward the end of the film, where the plotline begins to exponentially depart from reality. A fight breaks out, but it seems to come out of left field. The assailants, with quickly scripted motivations, are ultimately two-dimensional character “duds” that are revisited only for the sake of a cheap laugh. While the drawn-out duel is entertaining and allows Dalton and Booth to symbolically confront their grievances, part of me suspected the twist all along.
Given the fact that Tarantino has hinted at his retirement, I can’t help but wonder if the film is somewhat autobiographical. Tarantino takes his sweet time suggesting that youth and everything in Hollywood has an expiration date, from love to careers and life itself. Perhaps Tarantino has also become all too aware that his style is approaching its shelf life. If the director continues to make films, I hope he chooses to take more risks in both narrative and style. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is a safe pick for your first Tarantino film, because it boils down to the same core elements that make him quintessentially Tarantino. While the film will have you laughing in theaters, you might be stumped when your friends ask you about the plot. To quote Dalton, there was “a lot of killing.”