Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review: 'Cleverly realised at times, but meanders hopelessly, and is too self-indulgent and unfocussed'

“A love letter to Hollywood,” oozed one excitable British reviewer when describing Quentin Tarantino’s latest work, a film about which critical gushing has been more or less relentless.

It’s custom made to appeal to masculine reviewers of a certain age, and let’s be honest, most film critics are male, and knocking on. Packed from end to end with throwaway film references and loving recreations of 1960s TV crime shows and westerns, it is a very conscious attempt to capture the zeitgeist of an era that was about to end. 

That would be classic Hollywood, the version run mercilessly by charlatan studio bosses who treated actors (and especially actresses) like cattle, lived like doges and pumped out good and bad movies like there was no tomorrow. By the late 60s, their jig was up, and Tarantino’s film in one sense revolves around the notorious incident that’s often cited as old Hollywood’s death knell – the Manson Family murders.

After that, many a hack writer has declared without apparent irony, Hollywood lost its innocence. The idea that it ever had any is hilarious: this, remember, is the prototypical gated community that brought you hushed up rapes, forced abortions, Fatty Arbuckle, Errol Flynn and poor old Lupe Velez, the silent era starlet whose attempt to create the perfect, headline-grabbing suicide ended in ignominy with her head in a toilet bowl. If that tragicomic death isn’t a perfect metaphor for Hollywood I don’t know what is, but Mr. Tarantino has a tear ever-hovering in the corner of his eye as he painstakingly recreates Tinseltown at the messy end of the 1960s.

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Assembling his usual stellar line-up, he’s cast Leo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a TV actor whose career is on the slide. Rick was once the swaggering star of Bounty Law, a Bonanza-like western series, but it’s been canned and so has he, and now he’s reduced to villainous, moustache-twirling bit parts. Rick’s a diva, prone to operatic outbursts of self-pity, and with no woman apparently prepared to stick around and hold his hand, his loyal stuntman and driver regularly steps into the breach.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) has worked with Rick for years: he’s a happy-go-lucky soul, with a flair for martial arts and training bull terriers, and seems to have endless patience where his buddy’s strops are concerned. Meanwhile, even the bit parts are running out, and Rick’s blandly suave agent Marvin Schwarz (a crazy-haired Al Pacino) is trying to persuade him to go to Italy and star in one of those new-fangled spaghetti westerns.

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The only bright spot in Dalton’s blighted life is the fact that a celebrity couple have moved in next door to him on Cielo Drive. Roman Polanski is the next big thing in Hollywood thanks to the success of Rosemary’s Baby, and his beautiful wife Sharon Tate is pregnant with their first child. Rick watches enviously from his window as they swish off to A-list parties in Polanski’s sports car. That’s how the other half live, he thinks, but the golden couple may not be as lucky as he supposes.

Though Cliff takes a Hitchcockian trip to Spahn Ranch, home of the Family, and Manson makes a brief appearance loitering with intent outside the Polanski residence, he and they are peripheral to this story, which is a buddy movie, an elegy to a dying era, and an elaborate revenge fantasy which shows a grand contempt for historical fact.

Read more: Quentin Tarantino – a god of cinema, a pastiche spoofer, or both?

Late 60s Los Angeles is beautifully, painstakingly recreated by Tarantino, who uses a perfect palette of colours and is greatly helped by Robert Richardson’s superb cinematography. Similar care is bestowed on lavish recreations of the TV shows Dalton works on, even stilted on-set interviews he gives to a TV reporter. But this all may ultimately mean more to Tarantino, who grew up on those sorts of shows, than anyone else. 

The bromance between Rick and Cliff ought to touching, except for the fact (a) Cliff’s devotion is not reciprocated by the monstrously selfish actor, and (b) neither of them seem like real people in any case. At least they get to have their say, and indulge in some of Quentin’s trademark inconsequential banter, but Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is portrayed as a sort of idiotic Barbie, a simple-minded dreamer who at one point goes to a cinema to watch herself in a film.

Once Upon a Time is cleverly realised at times, but meanders hopelessly, and is too self-indulgent and unfocussed to make many coherent points. And as always with Tarantino’s films, much of the good is undone by a climax so spectacularly and nihilistically violent that it makes you glad you don’t have to live in the writer/director’s head.

A love letter? There’s no love in this film, except self-love maybe.

(18, 161 mins)

Read more: The Manson Murders: The night that Hollywood slid into the darkness

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