It’s interesting to me how the “love letter” analogy is tossed around by critics. Sometimes, it’s called for. Hanif Abdurrqib writes a love letter to A Tribe Called Quest in “Go Ahead in the Rain.” Damian Chazelle writes a love letter to Los Angeles in “La La Land.” Other times, however, it can be used to justify disfigurations of love and, untimately, conceal their harm. Recently, it has been invoked in misguided praise of Quentin Tarantino’s three-hour, mostly meandering but ultimately vindictive opus, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
The film does not exactly have a premise; rather, it drifts from (white) Hollywood figure to figure. Instead of a liberating drift, though, these lengthy, indulgent scenes mire each character in discomfiting fantasies of their director. Tarantino’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”) is a ditzy starlet who goes to a theater and enjoys watching herself play the sexist part she got in a movie. Tarantino’s Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, “Empire”) gets his ass kicked by a white, widowed stunt man (Brad Pitt, “Deadpool 2”), and it’s extra vindicating because Tarantino portrays Lee as a boastful, overrated martial artist. Did I say widower? The stunt man, Cliff Booth, is also suspected of killing his wife, but she was rude to him in a flashback, so Tarantino’s justice is that the stunt man probably got to take out his wife for free.
Still, this is a Tarantino film, so instead of even looking for a premise, let’s instead call it his “excuse for a violent climax.” In “Once Upon a Time,” that excuse is the haphazard interweaving of the Manson Family, partway into the backdrop, partway into the secondary cast. In a single scene that contains the violence Tarantino usually seems to prefer to distribute more evenly throughout his films, the two stars of the film, Booth and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”), are attacked by Manson Family members, but in Tarantino’s reimagining — complete with death-by-flamethrower — the (white) Hollywood guys win. That seems to be the ultimate, gruesome and vindictive point Tarantino is making. What does that leave the audience with, or Hollywood with, aside from a lust for violence and the unchecked ways of Hollywood’s past?
I don’t know if Hollywood wants to be avenged, and even less sure that it needs to be avenged. What it needs much more than vindication or even love is renewal. “Once Upon a Time” doesn’t offer that, or anything more than its director’s problematic fantasies.
— Julianna Morano, Daily Arts Writer
Over the course of my time at The Daily, I’ve reviewed a lot of lower quality Netflix films. As cringe-inducing and painful as some of these new releases about high school antics and poorly executed heists can be, I would opt to watch them all on repeat if it meant erasing the trainwreck that was “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” from my memory. I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I’ve never walked out of a theater in the middle of a movie. Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was the first time I wish I did. No amount of over-buttered popcorn or Twizzlers could have amended my movie-going experience.
Despite having two dynamite, A-list actors at his disposal, Tarantino’s picture flounders. As a former die-hard (now tempered) Leonardo Dicaprio fan, you can imagine my disappointment when his character, Rick Dalton, turns out to be a dull paperdoll of a man. A reflection of the movie as a whole, Dalton is straight up boring, minimally developed and has no real chemistry with his co-star Brad Pitt. I get that the late ’60s music, street children and druggie vibes were reminiscent of a romanticized decade, but that sort of nostalgia simply is not enough to carry a whole film. I’d perk up at every glimpse of a turning point, only to be let down again and again when no forward momentum was maide. I’m traditionally a fan of Tarantino’s non-linear filming style, but there are far too many pieces in “Once Upon a Time” left not only unconnected, but permanently unresolved.
If you’re going to make a mind-numbingly boring movie, at least have the courtesy to make it brief. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” spans close to three hours. And we are aware of every minute passing (really though, I checked my phone more times than I’m proud to admit). If you have intentions of seeing Tarantino’s latest flick, tread lightly. The sea of rave reviews deceived me, and you may fall destined for a similar fate.
— Samantha Nelson, Daily Arts Writer
Rarely do I change my opinion on a movie. While that may not be the most constructive way to critique films, it’s honest. My gut reaction to “Once Upon a Time” was total disinterest. I found the first two hours of the film to be unbelievably boring, to a degree that completely shocked me. I’ve felt a lot of things while watching films by Quentin Tarantino, but never boredom. The last act of the film, which has been praised for its shock and audacity, entertained me in the moment, but left me feeling “so what” by the time the credits rolled.
I’m about to sound hypocritical given I just said I don’t often change my views on movies, but “Once Upon a Time” has caused me to re-evaluate my entire relationship with Quentin Tarantino. As a young adult I loved his films. I thought they were funny, clever and exciting. But that feeling of “so what” that haunted me after I watched an alternative history in which Sharon Tate is never killed and the Manson murders never happen slowly began to extend to the rest of the Tarantino canon. You can make movies where Jews get to kill Hitler and Jamie Foxx gets to shoot up racist slave owners. But so what? Yeah, it would be nice if a lot of the bad shit that’s happened over the course of world history didn’t happen. But it did. I’m still working through what that means; more specifically, that I don’t think Tarantino movies “mean” anything. Maybe that’s fine. Maybe just being entertaining is enough. But in an increasingly complicated world, I don’t know how much room we still have to enjoy uncomplicated catharsis.
— Ian Harris, Daily Arts Writer