Movie Review: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

You know the bit at the very start of Reservoir Dogs, where writer and director Quentin Tarantino puts himself front an center to spew some pop culture theory about the music of Madonna? Well, doesn’t that just perfectly sum up who this modern-day auteur used to be? Not due to the content of the scene, you understand – while music is always a huge part of his films, Madonna isn’t that important to the story. It’s the way he tells the story, the way he makes a bunch of random dudes, who really give a shit about tipping, listening to this bloated pop theory seem compelling. You want to listen to this guy; not because what he says matters (it doesn’t), but the way he spins the yarn.

Tarantino’s success as a filmmaker was in the way he told his stories through the lens of different genres and cinematic trends. His debut is a slick, bloody, carefully-controlled genre piece that has as much to do with Hong Kong actioneers as it does with Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and the locked room mysteries of Agatha Christie. Pulp Fiction was his successful attempt at combining the kind of ensemble films that Robert Altman pioneered with a kind of magical realism. Most importantly, though, both films had terrific acting – while both films have the depth of a kiddie pool (that’s probably the exact pool that William Holden drowned in in Sunset Boulevard, just for the reference potential), their place in the cannon of American cinema is certainly earned.

Since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has basically made whatever film comes to mind. Most are good – Inglorious Basterds is even great – but as my co-editor pointed out earlier this month, these films don’t feel essential. The fact is, he’s just doing the same thing with each movie, using genre like a different coat of paint. This wouldn’t bother me that much except for the fact that he is rated so highly as a genuinely trail-blazing cinematic voice. He’s not. He’s not even that hallowed of all directorial descriptors, an auteur.

The famously acidic film critic Pauline Kael, when talking about what makes an auteur, compared the commercially successful, and very famous Alfred Hitchcock’s career to that of his lesser known contemporary, Carol Reed. Kael describes an auteur as an artist who is eclectic, who can travel to different, and even distant, artistic places. Hitchcock, while a cinematic great, was the master of one genre: suspense – Kael points out that he is just repeating himself for most of his filmography. Reed, who is most famous for the fantastic The Third Man, didn’t make that kind of film over and over again for the rest of his career.

It may be unfair to criticize Tarantino for this. Or at least it would be if he wasn’t being paraded around as the king of movies every time one of his films comes out, the last two of which, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight, where far from his best work. Okay, I’ve spent nearly 500 words building up to Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, but that some context was needed. BECAUSE I FUCKING HATED IT.

This movie, which is touted as Tarantino’s ninth film (Ugh, I’ll get to that in a minute), is one of the biggest polished turds I’ve ever seen. It’s reprehensible that this film, which is nearly three hours long, has absolutely nothing to say. Remember at the start, when I said that it wasn’t the Madonna theory that mattered, only the way that Tarantino told it? Well, nearly 30 years later and I’m sick of hearing the same old story. It doesn’t matter that Once Upon a Time is a visually handsome film, with very good performances from its three leads, especially Leo, but this is a film that makes the term “self-indulgent mess” seem too generous.

I’m reminded of an album review I read about the mid-noughties band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The critic commented that the band only seemed to know how to do one song, then repeated it for a whole album. That was okay though, because it’s a great song. That’s how Tarantino’s career feels, and Once Upon a Time is where I finally turn the damn album off. What used to be idiosyncrasies – great soundtrack, great cast, snappy dialogue, remixing and subverting genre conventions – feel like blunt tools in a toolbelt that’s starting to fall down his ass. He can’t do anything else. His voice, apart from some stuff that’s too bad taste and pointless for anyone else to bother with, is not original in the slightest. This guy is constantly put in the same class as Kubrick, Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson, but he has no right to be there.

So, we have the ninth film of a threatened ten. All this really means is that Tarantino ballooned the runtime of this farce to cram in as many different movie-within-a-movie sequences as possible. He’s trying to satirize Hollywood, an industry that he is far too cemented into to offer cogent criticism on – y’know, the industry that has given him free reign to do anything he fucking wants; kill Hitler, shout the N-word into infinitum, and in this insult of an ending, save the life of Sharon Tate. That’s right – he’s pulled another inglorious edit of history, with Manson’s trio of murderers instead being murdered themselves in a collection of wacky, ultra-violent ways by Brad and Leo.

What does this add? With Sharon Tate, and her friends still alive, does that mean that fucking Roman Polanski won’t sexually assault a young girl? No, it just means Leo’s character will star in Chinatown, probably. Heaven forfend that the movie bother to explore more of Tate’s backstory in light of this change, what her future will be like – despite Margot Robbie bringing an eminent charm to her performance, she’s still monstrously underused and basically sidenoted to a story about the men who save her life.

Couple this egregiously pointless rewriting of history with about half the runtime filled with either people driving, inconsistent voiceover used to fill in blanks Tarantino is too bored to do himself, and the parading his female cast’s feet in every frame possible in what feels like a hideously self-referential attempt to satirize his own much-speculated upon fetish, and what you’ve got is the worst movie of the year.

If you want a funny and bitingly satirical movie about Hollywood, go for Altman’s The Player, and if you want a movie showcasing the weirdness and societal contrasts of the time, go for Inherent Vice. It’s time to change the record, Quentin – Madonna hasn’t been relevant for years, and your riffs don’t work anymore.

Be Kevin Boyle

(header image via Vox)

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