Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review — hard to rate

Make no mistake, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a good movie that blends fact and fiction well and is backed up by great acting, cinematography and the typical Tarantino vibe. I've marked hard here.

NB: Very few spoilers.

I thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a strange old kettle of fish, even for Tarantino. I’m generally a fan of his films but to be honest I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one even after pondering it for some time.

It’s set in 1969 and there are two basic stories on the go. The main one has Leonardo DiCaprio playing a fictional actor who achieved fame for a Western series in the 1950s, and Brad Pitt plays his stunt double, best friend and general factotum. The other story is led by Margot Robbie who plays (the factual) Sharon Tate, bit-part actress and the wife of Roman Polanski. The only connection between the stories is that DiCaprio and Robbie live next door to each other in Los Angeles.

Then you have to add in Charles Manson’s commune of murderous hippies and what you end up with by way of a plot is a different take on the Manson “family’s” real-life murder of Sharon Tate. It’s a blend of fact and fiction with both the plot and the characters.

We’re even treated to Tarantino’s artistic portrayal of Bruce Lee and, for the sharp-eyed, there are plenty of pop culture references and nods to other films Tarantino has made.

Still from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood showing Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

It’s a meandering pair of tales that eventually gets us to the conclusion. It’s no stress to watch because, as ever with Tarantino, there’s that particular atmosphere he imbues his movies with and the acting, cinematography and soundtrack are excellent.

I wouldn’t call this an action movie, so if that’s what you’re after you’ll be disappointed. Even the trademark brutal Tarantino violence is missing until the very end.

The film was treated to a generally good reception, although it was not without its critics. Brian Tallerico gave it 4/4 on the RogerEgbert movie review site, saying it was:

Layered and ambitious, the product of a confident filmmaker working with collaborators completely in tune with his vision.

The Chicago-Sun Times said it was:

A brilliant and sometimes outrageously fantastic mash-up of real-life events and characters with pure fiction.

And, a bit more critically, Variety said:

A heady engrossing collage of a film—but not, in the end, a masterpiece.

Richard Brody of the New Yorker had no time for it at all, calling it:

An obscenely regressive vision of the sixties that celebrates white-male stardom (and behind-the-scenes command) at the expense of everyone else.

But why am I not sure about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood myself? I don’t know. I just can’t put my finger on it. I enjoyed it but there’s something that’s stopping me rating this a 4 star+ movie. I’ve seen reviews suggesting “nothing happens” and I can see where those comments come from, although I disagree with them. It’s a slow, incremental plot with a lot of character-building in the background, but the slow plot didn’t bother me because you just absorb the Tarantinoesque touches in the interim. It does veer off at strange tangents but they all serve to give the viewer some background into the characters.

I think my problem might be that I’m comparing Tarantino to himself. My favourites — if someone were to press me into answering on the threat of losing my ear — are probably Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight and I don’t think this one is a good as those, but it’s still good and I’d definitely recommend watching it.

I’ll give it a hard-marked 3.5 stars.