Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels like the weary final breath of a supremely gifted director who’s exhausted everything original he had to say and is now pathetically milling about in the purgatory of his once glorious creative energies. If this sounds unreasonably contemptuous, it’s only in proportion to my deep love for his earlier works, which were so fresh and forceful that they lingered in the back of your mind days after leaving the theater. In Pulp Fiction, his dialogue was so razor-sharp and effortlessly witty that you felt he had detected something uncannily true about his generation. His characters were contrived but they never felt forced into existence–they had an organic necessity to them. In Once Upon a Time, every single scene makes you painfully aware of how coddled Tarantino’s become by what he perceives as his inimitably Tarantino-esque knack for sleekly crafting eccentric characters and quirky scenarios. There is rarely a moment in the movie that doesn’t feel like a crude imitation of his past work; so much is so dulled and watered-down from its originally majestic dimensions that watching Once Upon a Time only makes you feel the absence of what his movies once were.
Maybe I’m being prematurely cynical, but at this point his abilities are noticeably wearing out with each successive movie. His preceding movie, The Hateful Eight, was, by his own admission, supposed to be the one that would draw his career to an admirable close. And while it was admirable, it still left something to be desired: the cinematic pyrotechnics that he’d pioneered in the past were flatly recycled and the film, by and large, fell through the cracks. After spending some time in hibernation, Tarantino probably came to feel the same way about Hateful Eight, and decided to end on a different note.
The Hateful Eight lacked a certain closure. It would have been oddly anticlimactic to conclude his career on a movie which didn’t make any attempt to consolidate everything he’s accomplished over his legendary career, which humbly began in a skimpy film store somewhere on the outskirts of Hollywood. He concocted Once Upon a Time as a sort of love letter to the cinema he was raised on, all too-aware that he’d soon be a sanctified member of the pantheon of directors who’d supplied the elements of his hybridized style of filmmaking.
The movie takes place in lush late-60’s Hollywood, when the film industry had a particularly central role in defining the zeitgeist of the era. In the wake of Hollywood’s relentless growth, countlessly many stars were spontaneously sidelined to forgettable roles. Once Upon a Time tells the story of, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vainglorious cinematic icon who’s been left to collect dust among the legions of washed-up actors. His assistant, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) acts as his stunt-double and emotional crutch as he staggers to gain a shred of the recognition he once had. Together they form a quixotic duo which doesn’t function as dynamically as Tarantino thinks it does.
The movie reminds me of a living funeral. It’s a retrospective of a director who knows his end is near. Watching it is like being forced to attend to an elderly person leafing through the vestiges of his past, rambling on about details which only interest him and him alone. It reeks of a musty, decaying nostalgia.