‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is no Family portrait

Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley, and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“You expected Charles Manson at the very least, didn’t ya?” – Randall Flagg

July 26 of 2019 brought us the latest film from a very interesting auteur. This self-taught professional has a vast knowledge of foreign and exploitation films that serves him well in providing homages and commentary. It’s funny, thrilling, and well-acted, one of his strongest efforts yet. Brad Jones really did do a great job with Another Cinema Snob Movie. Oh right, a new Quentin Tarantino movie also came out.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I am unhappy to report, is a letdown. Treating its subject matter in a very ill-conceived manner, it represents how a diverted focus can mar so much potential for greatness.

It’s 1969 and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor sliding into irrelevance. He keeps employed in western TV shows here and there, but he’s not seen as the leading man material he once was. His stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is finding his own employment difficulties. After a while, they’ll need to consider their options in how to best move forward to reinvigorate their careers.

On a parallel track is Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Yes, that Sharon Tate. Which means Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and the Manson Family are around too. Cliff runs into them when picking up Kathryn Lutesinger (Margaret Qualley) and giving her a ride back to the ranch. Things don’t go quite so smoothly there, giving the cult a new target.

As has come to be expected of him, Tarantino has assembled a very impressive cast that can rival any Avengers lineup. In addition to those mentioned, there’s Kurt Russell, Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Michael Madsen, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern (subbing in for Burt Reynolds, who died before he could film his part) and Luke Perry (who died not long after filming; does this movie have a curse or something?). There’s certainly more to be on the lookout for, and they’re all wonderful to watch in action.

Had this movie been entirely about Rick and Cliff, it could have been great. The two men succeed in their parts and play off each other superbly. How it handles showbusiness in this era is also interesting, presenting a (b-)side of pictures that rarely gets explored on this level. The attention to detail in the recreations is fabulous. But to the film’s detriment, that isn’t the only story being told here.

The treatment of the Manson stuff truly does ruin things. Tate and the Family really should have been dropped entirely, or at least replaced with fictional analogues. It’s going to be hard to discuss this without verging on spoilers, but to say that what happens in the movie wasn’t what happened in reality is a colossal understatement. 

Robbie is fine as Tate, but overqualified for the role. A lookalike actress who does reenactments on ID channel shows would’ve done just as well. Same goes for the Family, though they actually do consist of a couple actors who have impersonated their parts before. 

The events of the ending are where things really go off the rails. What happens there does use these figures, but ultimately they specifically are entirely irrelevant and should have just been replaced with invented stand-ins. But as is, it’s not a thoughtful presentation of the matter. In fact, it can be read as downright insulting to the victims of the Tate-LaBianca murders and probably does as much a disservice to the events as The Haunting of Sharon Tate did. Not only that, but it completely invalidates earlier scenes that were meant to be poignant. All impact those parts were supposed to have is promptly stripped away and renders them as utterly pointless.

Then there’s the depiction of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), which also should never have been included. In this film, he’s an absolute jerk who then gets into a fight with Cliff who handles him with ease. I can somewhat understand wanting to demonstrate Cliff’s military training, but why couldn’t this have been done with a fictional character? There has to be a better way to build him up without tearing down someone who means so much to so many.

Lastly, places where the writer/director gets in his own way stick out quite a bit. There’s a part when Rick is shooting with a child actress (Julia Butters) where he, ignoring the script, places her in danger. However, she was prepared for it and thus Rick is vindicated (never mind that there was no way for him to know that). This really feels like an awkward defense from Tarantino on the Uma Thurman situation. And the displays of his rather infamous fetishes are just shamelessly blatant (though we see DiCaprio’s soles probably as much as the ladies’, so I suppose equal opportunity is some progress).

A proper examination into one of the most horrific crimes in recent history Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not. Whatever real-world tragedy Tarantino decides to exploit next (9/11?), he ought to exercise some better judgment.

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