Arrogant, indulgent and meandering, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood spends the bulk of its bloated running time pretending to be a 100-million-dollar love letter to the golden age of cinema, but ultimately exposes itself as a deeply out-of-touch and misogynistic fairy tale.
Set in 1969, the non-plot circles aging TV idol Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the cowboy show Bounty Law, and his faithful sidekick/personal driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton also happens to live next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and pregnant film star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult alongside four other victims. Tarantino aimlessly follows these two threads until they intersect in an utterly ridiculous and revisionist third act that attempts to empower victims with a big “What If?”, but ultimately ends up pissing on their graves.
Like any other Tarantino film, Hollywood is brimming with a passionate (albeit tragically nostalgic) love for cinema, but the stakes feel incredibly low here. The predictably cool tunes and vintage Hollywood vibe are cute, but simply not enough to conceal the lack of story. The Manson cult don’t really come off as antagonists, and there’s just no narrative drive pushing the film forward. The only real suspense lies in the brief moments with Sharon Tate’s character – a looming threat of violence permeates these scenes, but waiting almost three hours for an innocent lamb to be slaughtered is hardly interesting.
People could write entire books about the fucked up sexual politics of this movie, as Tarantino’s painfully regressive male gaze is once again strikingly apparent. Honestly, what happened to the dude who made Jackie Brown? When they’re not being fetishized or used as voiceless physical props, the female characters are embarrassingly underwritten. After early complaints that Margot Robbie barely has any lines, Tarantino reportedly went back to the editing room and added some dialogue… but that still didn’t stop him from ruining her best scene, in which Tate catches a matinee of her own film The Wrecking Crew. This moment of pure sweetness and wonder is undercut by the director’s well-known foot fetish, with gratuitous shots of Robbie’s dirty feet resting on the seat in front of her. Much ink has been spilled on the topic, so this could be trolling on Tarantino’s part, or perhaps it really is an uncontrollable urge. Either way, every time a woman’s bare feet appear on screen (and it’s at least seven or eight times), it’s pretty cringe-inducing.
Whether it’s the casting of convicted abuser Emile Hirsch, the silly portrayal of Bruce Lee, or the numerous racist jokes and caricatures, there plenty of other complaints to be lodged against this sprawling mess of a film. A mid-movie reveal about Pitt’s character really doesn’t help matters, and reinforces the generally flippant attitude towards violence against women. In the end, we’re left with a film as empty as the industry it’s attempting to satirise – an expensive and soulless pop culture mixtape that ultimately sides with a couple of hippie-hating white guys.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Directed by Quentin Tarantino (US 2019) with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt. Starts August 15.
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