Tarantino can’t get out of his own way with Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino is our most seductive filmmaker.  His ability to frame and execute a scene with a crisp sense of vitality, his sharp-edged writing and the way in which he elicits primal performances from his cast have all become hallmarks of his work, elements that appeal to the many fans who are devotees to the Cult of Quentin.

Unfortunately, he also has a penchant for gratuitous violence and wish-fulfillment narratives that are adolescent in nature and beneath his talent.  Try as he might, Tarantino just can’t seem to escape his teenage years where his world view is concerned.  I submit Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight as evidence.

Fool that I am, I thought I was sitting through Tarantino’s masterpiece while watching Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. It’s a visually sumptuous piece of time travel cinema that transports the viewer to Tinsel Town of 50 years ago, a company town much like society, in the throes of transition, uncertain of where it’s headed but doing so with a sense of inescapable energy. Few films are able to envelope the viewer with its tone and mood as this does, so I’m using that as my excuse for being blindsided by a profoundly disappointing third act that I should have seen coming.

Before the screening, all critics were asked not to reveal any of the movie’s surprises so that audience members could discover them on their own.  While I am tempted to help you, dear reader, from wasting $10 on the film, I will honor this request.  Yet, if you know how Tarantino works regarding how he crafts his stories and the clue provided in the fairy tale title, you’ll see what’s coming and avoid engaging in foolish conjecture as I did.

To summarize the plot in the broadest strokes possible, the story focuses on floundering actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best buddy and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The former is in a panic regarding his career, as he’s been reduced to doing guest shots on various TV shows after his own series was cancelled two years prior.  The later doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, as he takes care of Dalton, making sure he gets to the set on time, learns his lines and even does handy work around his friend’s house.  Though they don’t notice for a while, it comes to their attention that they have new neighbors  – director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

I’ll say little more about the plot, other than to mention that Dalton gets a legitimate shot at a comeback, Booth routinely encounters a group of young hippies while cruising the streets of Hollywood, which results in a trip to the infamous Spahn Ranch, and actor Damien Lewis is given the opportunity to do the best Steve McQueen impersonation I’ve ever seen.

Viewers of a certain age will be beside themselves over Tarantino’s recreations of ‘69 Hollywood as well as the television shows that populated the airwaves and the movies of the era.  These are meticulous in look and feel and go a long way toward sucking the viewer in, as do the performances of the two leads.  DiCaprio and Pitt have never been better than they are here, each at ease and fully committed to their roles, playing off each other to generate a camaraderie and chemistry that benefits the film.  This is no competition, but rather two actors feeding off the other to marvelous effect.  Robbie is good as well – too bad her role is underwritten and her screen time limited.

To be sure, Tarantino fans will go over the film with a fine-tooth comb, unpacking its many Easter eggs and falling over themselves praising his camera movements, use of long takes and inventive framing.  All this praise is deserved, yet the faulty ending cannot be swept under the rug. What occurs during the last 20 minutes of Hollywood may satisfy some revisionist need in the filmmaker, but in the end his approach is dishonest and insulting to the viewer and those representations of the real-life period he recklessly uses in his personal fever dream.  
Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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