Once Upon A Time In Hollywood ***

It’s bloated at 161 minutes, but made enjoyable by DiCaprio and Pitt’s performances, and top-notch production and costume designs. 

Is it worth $10?  

The freshness of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” isn’t in its dialog, as we’re used to from writer/director Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained”). Rather, it’s in the performances and atmosphere. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are superb, while the production and costume designs, cinematography, and ‘60s soundtrack create a warm, nostalgic look at picturesque 1969 Hollywood.

DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an actor with a careworn career after he left his successful television show to try his hand at movies. Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick's stunt double, driver, drinking buddy and best friend. The film follows their adventures as Rick struggles to find work, and is peppered with flashbacks to earlier in their careers, including Cliff fighting Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).

Rick’s neighbors in the Hollywood Hills are “Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). It’s a bit clunky as Tarantino intercuts between Rick and Cliff’s escapades and Sharon, who spends most of the first half of the movie dancing and looking amazingly beautiful. At a Playboy mansion party, Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) tells us Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) was engaged to Sharon, but she left him after meeting Roman. Yet Jay is good friends with them, and clearly still cares deeply for her.

The love triangle, however, leads nowhere, as Tarantino is too busy filling the narrative with superfluity. Without exaggeration, 45 minutes could’ve been excised from the 161-minute running time and the film would be infinitely better. For as great as they are, Al Pacino and Kurt Russell’s characters are extraneous. As is the scene in which Rick talks to a young actress (Julia Butters) on the set of his latest western. As is the scene in which Sharon goes to watch her movie “The Wrecking Crew” during its run in a theater. As is the lengthy scene in which Cliff encounters a plethora of Charles Manson followers at one of his old shooting locations. And so on. If you want to argue they’re important for character development, fine, but my goodness at least trim them.

This is a common critique of Tarantino films: He can’t get out of his own way. He overwrites, and doesn’t part with the excess in the editing room. It feels like too much of a not-so-good thing. Worse, as happened in “The Hateful Eight,” the story lacks structure and direction – it’s going nowhere, and taking a long time to get there. It's not until the end, when one reflects on the totality of the movie, that true appreciation is felt. During viewing, it drags.

Thankfully, DiCaprio and Pitt are excellent. Each shines more individually than he does when they’re together: DiCaprio when he’s yelling at himself for not knowing his lines, and Pitt as he plays every situation as cool as can be. Given what Cliff encounters, this says a lot. Robbie is good as well, but doesn’t have as many lines or as big a part as the marketing campaign leads you to expect.

“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is merely good Tarantino, not great. It’s his ninth film, and belongs somewhere in the middle if you ranked his work. See it for DiCaprio and Pitt’s performances, as well as the sentimentality for a bygone era that Tarantino clearly loves.

Did you know?
Stay for the credits to enjoy the inclusion of a Tarantino staple: Red Apple cigarettes.