Quentin Tarantino’s made a big deal of this being his 9th film, while heralding his retirement after number 10 with the sort of nostalgic fandom he’s always ladled over his favourite directors and stars. Such self-consciousness (if not self-aggrandizement) is risky, because you’ve really got to deliver.
Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood isn’t the masterpiece that some are claiming; it’s too rambling, self-indulgent and – despite a typically grand guignol ending – anti-climactic for that. But it is an evocative and entertaining paean to the Los Angeles of the filmmaker’s youth, featuring the megawatt charisma of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and with the shadow of the Manson Family ensuring that no-one settles too comfortably into their seats.
It’s 1969. DiCaprio is the fictional actor Rick Dalton, best known as a TV cowboy in the Fifties, who never made it in the movies as he’d hoped and whose career is now on the skids; Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double and best friend, sticking by him through the ignominy of guest parts in other people’s shows. And Margot Robbie plays the ill-fated Sharon Tate, who with her husband Roman Polanski has moved next door to Rick as the toasts of Hollywood.
The big question is how Rick and Cliff’s amiable adventures will dovetail with the Tate murders. Meanwhile, it’s a kinda shaggy dog story, which ambles between Rick shooting his latest western, Cliff’s creepy trip to Manson’s infamous ranch and a conversely hilarious tussle with martial arts star Bruce Lee, and Sharon enjoying a day at the cinema, watching herself.
DiCaprio and Robbie lend the film its heart, she delightfully depicting the joy of new-found fame, he the anxiety of losing it; Pitt and Di Caprio’s buddy movie chemistry offer its charm; and Pitt drives it along with an extraordinary display of casual machismo. The scenes of him simply driving around town are exhilarating.
The supporting cast includes a rum turn by Al Pacino as an agent who urges Rick to escape to Italy to make spaghetti westerns. Tarantino’s fondness for his milieu is palpable, with every shot, every location, every prop zinging with authenticity and anachronistic allure. His production team are exemplary.
At the same time, Tarantino’s writing doesn’t have its usual high standard. Usually his extended scenes are densely scripted and incredibly tense; this time they’re just flat.
It’s worth remembering that Inglourious Basterds opened with the line, “Once upon a time in Nazi France…”. Like that film, this is determinedly revisionist. But while happy to mess around with history, what Tarantino can’t change is his gorefest desire to shock. It may not be how we’d expect, but the denouement to Tarantino’s mellowest film yet is, again, very nasty and not at all gratifying.
This review first appeared in The i and The Arts Desk