Back in 1994, when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction premiered at Cannes, a publicist for the film said two things about the picture – that it was 20 minutes too long and it wasn’t about anything at all. It was true then – even though the movie won the top prize at Cannes that year -- and it’s also true about Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. It’s too long, and it’s not about much beyond Tarantino’s romanticized love of the Hollywood boy world.
Tarantino is tremendously talented. He sets up scenes beautifully; he makes ingenious connections between events, but his now nine films are mostly about themselves and other movies. Tarantino has probably seen more films than any ten people alive on Earth. He refers to other, often obscure pictures all through his own movies – which is one reason they’re so tantalizing to the Internet obsessives. And they really are made for males who love an imagined world where women are mostly either servants of a sort, or in the way.
As the title suggests, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is a fable about the movie world. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a star of westerns on TV. His long-time stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is also his friend, and his gofer, assistant and ego-booster. Dalton has ambitions to play more serious roles in feature films.
The story takes tangents. It’s 1969; specifically, the movie opens on Saturday, February 8, 1969. Like the rest of the world Hollywood is unsettled. Young women wearing very little hitchhike on the streets of LA. One shows up repeatedly and makes eyes and playful gestures at Cliff who finally gives her a ride – he brushes off her sexual offer. She’s going to the Spahn Movie Ranch, the old Hollywood location for westerns, where the Manson family took up residence. By Tarantino-ish coincidence, Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski live a couple of doors down from Rick Dalton. Her murder is exactly six months away – an historical memory that hangs over the movie like an unfortunately lighthearted cloud.
But Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood isn’t much concerned with the possibilities for depth. It loves banter, brief, smart observations and hints of complexities that won’t develop. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is a mild-mannered guy. He gets into a fight with action star Bruce Lee, and beats him up, but the placid Pitt surface stays intact. Out at the Spahn Ranch, Pitt also dispatches a troublemaker without breaking a sweat.
For me, Leonardo DiCaprio is all on the surface; he doesn’t invite audiences into his inner turmoil – or joy – because there isn’t any. During a break in filming, his Rick Dalton gets into a conversation with a child star and he starts to cry – but it feels as if the character is just acting out sadness.
It’s no secret and it isn’t news that Hollywood is a brutal, crass place, or that people in the movie business use each other. Or that strange coincidences pop up in the world. I think that for Quentin Tarantino the game’s the thing, not the understanding. His films are like toys. They’re fun to look at, to play with, to turn upside down and inside out to see how they’re put together. But Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood doesn’t much get into your head, and never into your heart. It stays put, like the ingenious object that it is. And with its love of fighting and its jolts of teenage-level male competition, it’s a thing for boys.