Alternate history is SF, right? In Quentin Tarantino’s lastest film, we have a meandering story about a fading actor, which then turns into alternative history and a movie about, I suppose, movies. It is also the first Tarantino film I’ve seen in the movie theatre (rather than at home) since Kill Bill, Volume 2. What I like about Tarantino’s work I rather like in this movie. What I don’t like about his work I really don’t like in this movie.

Back to Hollywood, then, fifty years ago….

Title: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Cast and Crew

Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring
Margaret Qualley as Pussycat
Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy
Julia Butters as Trudi
Austin Butler as Tex
Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme
Bruce Dern as George Spahn
Mike Moh as Bruce Lee
Luke Perry as Wayne Maunder
Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen
Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarzs
Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker
Samantha Robinson as Abigail Folger
Rafal Zawierucha as Roman Polanski
Lorenza Izzo as Francesca Capucci
Costa Ronin as Voytek Frykowski
Damon Herriman as Charles Manson
Lena Dunham as Gypsy
Madisen Beaty as Katie
Mikey Madison as Sadie
James Landry Hébert as Clem
Maya Hawke as Flower Child
Victoria Pedretti as Lulu
Sydney Sweeney as Snake
Harley Quinn Smith as Froggie
Dallas Jay Hunter as Delilah
Kansas Bowling as Blue
Parker Love Bowling as Tadpole
Cassidy Hice as Sundance
Ruby Rose Skotchdopole as Butterfly
Danielle Harris as Angel
Josephine Valentina Clark as Happy Cappy
Scoot McNairy as Business Bob Gilbert
Clifton Collins Jr. as Ernesto The Mexican Vaquero
Marco Rodríguez as Bartender on Lancer
Ramón Franco as Movie Theater Manager
Raul Cardona as Bad Guy Delgado
Courtney Hoffman as Rebekka
Dreama Walker as Connie Stevens
Rachel Redleaf as Mama Cass
Rebecca Rittenhouse as Michelle Phillips
Rumer Willis as Joanna Pettet
Spencer Garrett as Allen Kincade
Clu Gulager as Book Store Man
Martin Kove as Bounty Law Sheriff
Rebecca Gayheart as Billie Booth
Kurt Russell as Randy
Zoë Bell as Janet
Michael Madsen as Sheriff Hackett
Monica Staggs as Connie
Omar Doom as Donnie
Kerry Westcott as Dancer
Kate Berlant as Bruin Box Office Girl
Victoria Truscott as Musso & Frank Hostess
Allison Yaple as Lancer Script Girl
Brenda Vaccaro as Mary Alice Schwarz
Daniella Pick as Daphna Ben-Cobo
David Steen as Straight Satan David
Mark Warrick as Curt
Gabriela Flores as Maralu the Fiddle Player
Heba Thorisdottir as Make-Up Artist Sonya
Breanna Wing as Young Girl Hippy Hitchhiker
Kenneth Sonny Donato as Musso & Frank Bartender
Sergio Gonzalez as Musso & Frank Waiter
Casey O’Neill as Nazi Soldier
Michael Graham as Officer
Emile Williams as Paramedic
Craig Stark, Keith Jefferson, Lew Temple, Vincent Laresca, JLouis Mills, Maurice Compte Gilbert Saldivar, Eddie Perez as Land Pirates

And roughly twelve thousand other people.

Premise:

A fading Hollywood action hero and his stunt double/gofer/buddy meander around Hollywood and interact with several real historical figures, including the Manson Family. Our hero lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. Then, for no acceptably good reason, the film climaxes with the Manson Family version of the Inglourious Basterds ending.

High Points:

DiCaprio and Pitt do an excellent job as their characters, interacting with a terrific recreation of a lost Hollywood. The Manson Family, meanwhile, creep around the background of the movie, stalking the film and its characters. We see a car drive by here, in a darkened background, and then a Family hitchhiker there, smiling. The visit to the Spahn Ranch strikes the right notes: we’re in a Village of the Damned, a sunlit horror movie set, one significant to our protagonists’ pasts.

Low Points:

It’s not so much that the ending requires prior knowledge of the Tate/Labianca Murders, but that the ending only loosely connects to what we’ve been watching for the preceding two hours.

I recall seeing Pulp Fiction when it came out and liking it, but being baffled by the hyperbolic degree of adulation it received. Twenty-some years later Tarantino brings out the same bag of tricks: a blender of previous films and genres, pulverized and reconstituted, over-the-top violence as fun entertainment (though this may be Tarantino’s least-violent film), and hipper-than-thou irony: ironic reconsideration of cinema itself, and ironic prejudice. In the past, he’s given us ironic misogyny (not absent from this film), ironic racism (see note), and now—ironic hatred of Dirty Hippies. This film is good, but Tarantino can’t help but revert to type, even when he’s doing a picture that should take him somewhere else.

The nineties happened a long time ago. Five dollars is now the standard price for a real milkshake, even in second-rate diners.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6

Effects: 6/6 The film does an outstanding job of recreating 1969, and he did so with location and physical props and sets. The film, reportedly, does not use greenscreen, though other digital effects insert the film’s actors into certain locations.

Acting: 6/6 This film features several excellent performances. While most of the attention has gone, quite correctly, to its leads, even the bit-part players feel credible.

Production: 6/6 Tarantino has always been about style, and this film showcases his abilities.

Story: 4/6 The two major parts of this film connect, but they do not adequately connect.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 5/6 Stay for the credits, which include two hilarious ad spots: one fake and satiric, and the other, real. According to the old man two seats down: “best part of the movie!”

In total, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood receives 35/42

Note

We’re “once upon a time,” and it’s not just the history of the Manson murder that changes. Far from being the blowhard doofus portrayed in this movie, Bruce Lee had a reputation for treating supporting crew respectfully, and he held Muhammad Ali in high regard. Both of these points are relevant to his key scene, where he gets treated as a bizarre joke. Of course, that scene consists of Cliff’s flashback, in a movie that explores and questions cinematic storytelling, so the scene itself feels ironically undercut.

If you search around the web, you’ll find some people questioning the fact that the only Asian character gets treated as a joke, while other historic figures—including one convicted child-rapist—receive fairly reverential depictions.

(I exclude the Manson Family, who obviously don’t come off looking good. They earned their infamy).

For a more detailed account of the controversy over this scenes, check this opinion piece by Gabrielle Bruney.