Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - B-
Rated R, 165 minutes
Oscar-winner and "Django Unchained" director Quentin Tarantino clearly has a love of 1960’s Hollywood, and by the end of his heavily stylized, yet flawed, overlong drama "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," he will still love it more than you. Except for its fun but misplaced ending, this is not the wild, over-the-top Tarantino of "Pulp Fiction" or "Inglourious Basterds" but the tamer, slow-moving "Jackie Brown" Tarantino. It's not his best film, but it's still peppered with some good moments.
The film is set in a 1969 Los Angeles, where everything is changing, as TV star Rick Dalton (Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (a dashing Brad Pitt) make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore. Both are struggling, and to make matters more interesting, Rick has a hot new actress named Sharon Tate ("I Am Tonya's" Margot Robbie) as his new next-door neighbor.
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is Tarantino's remarkably restrained tribute to faded Hollywood, weaving fictional characters (Pitt and DiCaprio) and storylines with real ones (pretty much everyone and everything else) in an alternate-universe Hollywood. If there's one thing that Tarantino does near perfectly in "Once Upon" is capturing the essence and style of the 1960's, namely the hair, the clothes, the cars, the language and general feel of a Hollywood that has since faded, and is what you'll remember the most about the film.
Unfortunately, Tarantino's weaknesses are on display here too, including his love for his own dialogue, uneven pacing and drawing out scenes. That said, the film is about 45 minutes too long and is felt by its too-leisurely storytelling, which unevenly mixes the more engaging movie-within-a-movie moments with hippies and the Charles Manson group. The most memorable and even touching subplot is that of Sharon Tate, superbly played by a charming Robbie, who nearly steals the male-dominated film.
Pitt and DiCaprio are both fine and they share a warm camaraderie, each with strong individual moments, especially DiCaprio as the talented but struggling TV actor Dalton. However, it’s “Once Upon's" slightly wacky and controversial ending that will generate the most talk; it tacks on some unnecessary blood and violence because well, Tarantino can get away with it. It's also exploitative given how unfortunate the real situation played out, but in this alternate-universe we get a surprisingly upbeat ending, not to mention a 1960’s Hollywood devoid of most minorities.
Unsurprising, given its subject matter, is its extensive, all-star cast, many in blink-or-miss-them cameos: Oscar-winner Al Pacino has a couple of scenes, with Bruce Dern, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Kurt Russell and even the late Luke Perry all have a scene or two.
I love its '60's style, its stars and can appreciate the tribute to old Hollywood, and while it certainly isn't terrible, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" may be a slight disappointment those Tarantino fans expecting loads of his usual over-the-top violence. This is lesser Tarantino for sure.