Quentin Tarantino rewrote history to give us revenge fantasies against Nazis and slavery. In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, he assaults his latest cultural bugaboo: political correctness. Like, you know, going after all these talented men just because they expect a blow job or two to give someone a movie role. Come on, ladies, even Clark Gable put out!
The PCness that has hobbled popular entertainment, you see, all started back in the late 60s, when TV began to eclipse movies and hippies were everywhere, putting Algernon flowers in old movie cowboys’ six-shooters.
QT’s surrogate here is old movie cowboy Rick Dalton, whose career is waning and who hates hippies so much he should have a show on Fox News. His errand boy, Cliff Booth, is a veteran stuntman, so we’ll assume head trauma and not question his choices. The film is happiest when just following these two around LA on their daily routines, Rick on set or yelling at hippies, Cliff fixing things with his shirt off. They also drive around a lot, listening to perfume commercials.
Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt bring their movie star brilliance to Rick and Cliff, respectively, and gosh darn it, we like them so much we almost overlook the fact that these characters, and the movie, are bent on putting women in their place. This is excused by the time period, but you get the sense that Tarantino is enjoying it a little too much.
First we get the hippie chick villains, introduced coming out of a dumpster. Our damsel in distress is a mute, blow-up doll version of Sharon Tate, a stunning but crappy actress with a taste for nerdy guys (fantasy much, QT?). And Cliff’s wife berates him as a loser – which is ridiculous because he’s Brad Pitt – so she deserves it when he ‘accidentally’ shoots her with a spear gun. The only female in the entire picture who isn’t either ditzy, deranged or shrewish is a precocious 8-year-old actress, whose sole purpose is to point out that Rick is actually a fine actor, despite his B-movie career.
Other than a quick glimpse of Charles Manson and a tense scene where we think Cliff might punch smug hippie chick Lena Dunham (he doesn’t, but Tarantino takes care of this in his next film, Once Upon a Time…When I Could Punch Girls), there is an aimlessness to the proceedings that’s unusual for a Tarantino film. Maybe he’s gotten a bit addled, we wonder, until he turrets out his former gonzo self at the very end and lays comically bloody waste to his nemeses.
Think what you will about Tarantino’s style, but his films have never felt defensive and reactionary. Once Upon a Time…comes across less like a paean to a golden past – La La Land did that much more earnestly – and more like the angry acting out that we’re seeing from the male establishment being challenged in Hollywood. Blowtorching Squeeky Frome is very Tarantino, yes, but it’s harder to laugh along with him lately.
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