Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Wastes its Potential

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood poster with the cast looking out to the viewer.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino (Director and Writer), Robert Richardson (Cinematography), Fred Raskin (Editor), Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie (Cast)

Released July 26, 2019

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time, I was a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I’d seen all his movies, and was ever eager to get my friends and acquaintances to see them. But those feelings are long gone. Enter Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth movie. Despite my long list of reservations (more on that later), I saw it. And well … it’s okay. It’s not good, nor is it bad. Hollywood is a shallow movie that doesn’t do as much as it could’ve with its cast, story, and setting. This is especially more pronounced when compared to the spectacle of Tarantino’s previous films.

To borrow the question from Claire Dederer’s essay of the same name, what do we do with the art of monstrous men? I’ve been asking myself this about Tarantino for over a year now. I’m not calling him a monster, more of an enabler of monsters. He didn’t do much about Harvey Weinstein, even when he probably could’ve. There was his negligence leading to the car crash that left Uma Thurman with permanent injuries. Or how about the decision to cast Emile Hirsh, a man who assaulted a woman, as real-life murder victim Jay Sebring?

Unlike other questionable (or worse) creators, Tarantino’s movies are, for the most part, good. Reservoir Dogs is still an excellent study in characterization and masculinity. Jackie Brown is perennially underappreciated. With Pam Grier in the lead, it’s a thriller with an older woman of color as a three-dimensional character. And on the personal side of things, Kill Bill remains one of my favorite movies.

After Uma Thurman’s gut-wrenching and infuriating interview about the car crash during Kill Bill’s filming and the subsequent cover-up, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was irate. My Tarantino loyalties were officially over. How could I continue to enjoy his movies knowing this was how he treated people? Excepting Kill Bill, (the affection I felt for the friend who gave them was stronger than my hate) I sold my movie collection to my local comic shop. They gave me two bucks.

I will warn you. This review/essay has spoilers. Big ones. However, if you are a savvy enough person, or at least paid attention to the conclusion of Inglourious Basterds, you can probably gather how Hollywood ends. In fact, the only reason I wanted to review this was because I looked up spoilers. Call it cheating or being a downer, I had to know if I was right. I was, sort of.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have looked up spoilers, since half of them were fake. They did sound believable. And unfortunately, the made-up ending was better than what we got. It’s not that Tarantino’s films can’t be sedate. Jackie Brown is far quieter than the rest of his filmography. The payoff here is not worth the very long build-up.

Hollywood is a slice of life story set in 1969. Audiences follow Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a washed-up former TV cowboy actor who’s stuck doing guest spots as bad guys. His former stunt double/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) now works as his assistant/driver. Their close and affectionate bromance is Tarantino’s best love story.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt stand next to each other as their characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The plot is simple. Rick tries to find his footing in a changing Hollywood. Cliff nannies Rick, feeds his adorable pit bull, and encounters the Manson family. Tarantino regulars make cameos, including Michael Madsen and Zoe Bell as a stunt coordinator. Maya Hawke, fresh off of Stranger Things, briefly appears as Manson member Linda Kasabian.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate brings a happy glow to the role. It’s bittersweet to see this Sharon Tate get to live, wishing that her real-life counterpart got to do the same. Yes, it is true that she’s not in the movie as much as DiCaprio and Pitt. Considering how thin the plot is, her story is just as valuable as the others. For what it’s worth, Tate’s sister Debra liked this interpretation.

On the other hand, Mike Moh is wasted as Bruce Lee. He gets one decent scene and a brief flashback. Moh looks, sounds, and moves like Bruce Lee. It’s uncanny. And he merely gets into a short fight with Cliff that he kinda … loses. It’s a stalemate, one to me that still came across as insulting to Lee’s legacy. Primarily, because it is used to make Cliff look badass. Bruce Lee deserves more than to be used to prop up a fictional white man.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee points with his thumb wearing his black Kato costume.
Mike Moh as Bruce Lee.

This leads to my one big issue with the movie, a subplot given to Cliff. There’s the reoccurring joke that he killed his wife and got away with it. There’s a brief flashback showing her to be a nagging shrew, as if that justifies her alleged murder. This is played for laughs and it feels gross to me considering that this movie subverts one of the ugliest mass murders in American history, where the most notable victim was a pregnant woman. There are plenty of other ways to show that Cliff is a violent man under his veneer of domestic reliability. And considering Emile Hirsh’s casting, it seems that violence against women meant to be ignored.

An analysis of the movie can’t avoid talking about the ending. As I said earlier, you can probably guess a part of it. Instead of being brutally murdered by the Manson family, Sharon Tate, her unborn son, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski survive the night of August 9th, 1969. (The other victim, Steven Parent, is neither mentioned nor appears).

After Rick drunkenly tells them to go away, the three killers decide to break into his house rather than continue to Tate’s. They run into Cliff and his dog. The beat down is the level of violence one expects from the director. And yeah, it’s a little cathartic to see evil people who got to grow old die horribly. Too bad for me, I read the false spoilers. If you expect Hollywood to have the balls to the wall disregard for history like Inglourious Basterds, you’ll find yourself disappointed. Tarantino does not lean into the subversion. It’s not important that it is the Manson murderers that Cliff and Rick kill, only trivia. The fake spoilers said I would get to see Bruce Lee fight Charles Manson. The over the top-ness of that would’ve put Hollywood on the same level of blowing up Hitler and his high command.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t awful, I found myself invested a little in the characters and some of the jokes are funny. But, even if you choose to ignore all the outside issues, it doesn’t stand on a leg compared to its predecessors. It lacks the cleverness and dark humor of Pulp Fiction, and the final fight isn’t nearly as enthralling or triumphant as Django’s assault on Candyland.

If you’re a Tarantino completionist, go and see it in theaters. If not, you can wait till it comes to VoD or DVD. I tried my best to give Hollywood a fair chance, but in today’s world, it’s hard to ignore the messed up elements that went into its creation. The movie’s blandness does little to make me a fan again. Personally, if you want to see a film that indulges in its genre and time period and subverts history, I recommend Michael Jai White’s 2009 Black Dynamite.

Rachel Bolton

Rachel Bolton

Rachel Bolton is a tired writer working on more projects than she has time for. Her writing has previously appeared in Ms En Scene, SideQuest, Scriptophobic, My American Nightmare, and Weirdbook Annual: Witches. She enjoys crocheting, reading massive amounts of books, watching documentaries, and playing video games.

8 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Wastes its Potential

  1. Just wanted to chime in and mention Lena Dunham was also inexplicably in this movie as a member of the Manson family. Tarantino clearly doesn’t care about anyone’s crappy rep.

  2. Simply could not disagree more. Seriously, not possible .

    A. "To borrow the question from Claire Dederer’s essay of the same name, what do we do with the art of monstrous men?"
    OK, THAT is a very bad start and it doesn’t get any better later. I don’t need or want your views on feminist themes. I especially don’t want them coloring a movie review. Under no circumstances should ART be subject to your private hobby horses. They aren’t MY hobby horses, and one should never write as if your ‘truth’ matters in the least to others . ON A MOVIE.
    B. And of course, you then just HAVE to continue in the same woke vane. Not having anything else at all to bring to the table. " Bruce Lee deserves more than to be used to prop up a fictional white man." Why not add a little race baiting to a movie review. EVERYONE likes that.
    C. I don’t want to ‘subvert history’. I want to be ENTERTAINED and ENGAGED. I most assuredly don’t want to subvert history to anything that you would evidently prefer. Nor should I. Nor should anyone. Nor should you want MY historical preferences. This is just irrelevant.

    As to how this stacks up against other Tarantino movies, I completely disagree with you here as well. It’s NOT slow. It’s ‘detailed’. It’s not the Manson story at all. That collection of monsters is mere detail, and a setup for the ending. I know that the trailers are deceptive, but so what ? It’s a freaking FAIRY TALE. And it plays out as such. As to where this sits on the Tarantino oeuvre scale, I put it at either 1 or 2. I didn’t find it slow at all. I was entranced by a world I am old enough to know personally but was never a part of. But EVERYONE can identify with Ric and his best bud Cliff.
    Everyone but you, and of course the addled generations, who can’t seemingly concentrate for longer than 5 minutes without becoming ‘bored’, and who can’t escape their programming .EVER.
    As I said, I could not disagree more with either the ‘foundations of ‘ or the content of your review. I seriously think you just mis-saw the flic from a faulty perspective. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not a woke social commentary.
    Thank the Gods for that.

    1. Friend. Buddy. Pal. You came to WOMEN WRITE ABOUT COMICS to tell us that you don’t want our views on feminist themes. If you don’t want them, I invite you to GO ELSEWHERE.

    2. Finding reviews you disagree with so you can write long essays about, for example, how a feminist website should not write with a feminist perspective is private hobby horse that you probably should have kept private.

      1. :applause:

        (to Wendy Brown, in case this comment field doesn’t indicate more than one layer of response)

Comments are closed.