TWO STARS Shortly before Sharon Tate was murdered, actor Rick Dalton faced professional obscurity.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt
PERIOD DRAMA #OnceUponATimeInHollywood
Much is made of this being Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film given the fetishised director has made such a big deal about retiring after his tenth (he considers KILL BILL VOL Vol 1 & 2 to be a single story, so there’s one last feature in him yet). There was talk about him taking the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year, a quarter of a century after striking gold with PULP FICTION. He didn’t. And while many (many) people have lauded this ‘love-letter’ to a golden age of Hollywood, it’s very (very) difficult to see what all the fuss is about. It may be pretty to look at but it’s about as deep as Wallpaper magazine and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. There. I’ve said it. Emperor Tarantino is naked.
OUATIH concerns itself with a couple of guys ageing in the Hollywood system. It’s 1969 and actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former B celebrity in television westerns, is sliding into obscurity. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) was Rick’s stunt double who, according to gossips, may have killed his wife. Not that anyone really seems to care. The pair have remained good friends and while Rick tries to reinvent himself (spaghetti westerns in Rome advises a casting agent), Cliff rides around LA doing odd jobs for Dalton. While the future may be grey, the present is imbued with shades of sunset cool.
Violence hangs off somewhere in the distance and being a Tarantino film where women are usually meat for the machine, the presence of Margot Robbie foreshadows inevitability. She’s also Sharon Tate who, at the hands of the Manson family, would meet a grisly end months after the start of this story. Since Cliff becomes entangled with some of the clan in this reimagined history of Hollywood (once upon a time… geddit?), everything points a blood bath, and the clock is ticking.
Until then we get to hang around with Rick, Cliff and occasionally Sharon hanging around all the cool (and not so cool) haunts in LA. And to be fair, Tarantino does a terrific job of evoking the period: fashion, music, ads, tv, films, theatres, cars, drive-ins, ranches and film lots that all point to a rarified knowledge of the times. It’s an incredibly stylish result that is a pleasure to wallow in. Yet in the absence of any real story it lands with the dull thud of style over substance, of being too clever by half. Or more accurately, it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.
Tarantino side steps any opportunity to go beyond the wallpaper effect of the film’s trappings. Despite the professional quagmire Rick and Cliff find themselves in, nothing is made of surviving middle age. Little is made of Hollywood reinventing itself in the late sixties while the social and political landscapes get scant attention beyond Rick’s disdain for ‘hippies’. And of course there’s no need to look for Sharon’s contribution, she’s a female starlet whose job is to look pretty until the blood starts flowing.
I appreciate OUATIH is a fable (once upon a time… I goddit), but we still need a narrative that’s more than a set up for violence. And frankly Mr Tarantino, smashing a can of dog food into someone’s face is not entertainment. Not cool, not funny. We need more than the recreation of days gone by, we need more than this cinematic version of watching a nerdy friend win at Trivial Pursuit. We already know you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of fashion, music, ads, tv, films, theatres, cars, drive-ins, ranches and film lots. It’s entertaining enough, to a point. But to what end, to what purpose other than reminding us how clever you are?
On to the tenth, let's get this over with.