A Flawed But Ambitious Trip Down Memory Lane
If film is a subjective art form, then Quentin Tarantino is easily one of the most subjective artists of this era. As decisive as he is acclaimed, Tarantino has certainly left his mark in popular culture, even if many people have little to no interest in his work. Which is why is was so surprising when the release of his latest and supposedly penultimate film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came with little controversy compared to his past efforts. And while societal factors certainly play a part, the film itself offers a simple explanation as to why people seemed more forgiving than usual. Because while Once Upon a Time is certainly still a Quentin Tarantino film, it may be the least Quentin Tarantino film released since the start of his career, for better and for worse.
As with many of his recent films, Once Upon a Time balances on the performances of its main players, in this case an over-the-top turn from Leonardo DiCaprio and an equally strong but more nuanced performance by Brad Pitt. Both fully commit to their characters, giving a real legitimacy to the world they exist in. The interpretation of Hollywood presented here directly reflects their characters: flawed, fractured, and constantly changing. Even with the loving recreation and design of the time period, the atmosphere is one of acute understanding that the past was by no means perfect, and neither were the people living in it. This acknowledgement allows for a more nuanced film than people may expect from Tarantino, one that takes its time instead of rushing the audience along to the next setpiece. However, this can lead to unwarranted downtime that, while not a huge issue, happens frequently enough that by the end of the film, even the most patient audience members will likely groan whenever a character gets into a car.
As great as it is to see Tarantino showing some restraint, he seems to forget a lot of fundamentals, giving Once Upon a Time a number of small problems that compound onto each other. Along with the previously mentioned downtime, random narration and fourth-wall breaking moments show up and interrupt the flow of the film. These issues also extend to arguably the most important character of the film, Sharon Tate, played by a game but sadly wasted Margot Robbie. Tate as a character is horribly underutilized; much of her history and character traits are explained by other characters, and she largely seems to exist to surprise the audience when the main story and her subplot eventually come together. Until that happens though, she mostly just wanders around, killing time while more interesting things happen around her. For a story that seems to exist largely to explain the inclusion of her and her husband, Tarantino seems rather uninterested in actually telling her side of things.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not a perfect film, and in some ways it succeeds despite itself. But the ambition Tarantino displays is impossible to ignore, and clear vision and a wealth of strong performances help keep everything afloat. The film is clearly a passion project, and few directors have as strong a passion for their craft as Tarantino. Even if his next film does turn out to be his last, at least he showed right at the very end that he can make something that transcends fantasy and feels just as real as he is.