Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino's overindulgent love letter to a bygone era. He reimagines a tragic pop culture event by weaving an elaborate movie star fantasy. At two-hours and forty-one minutes, the film becomes too enamored with innocuous details. The pacing drags considerably in long stretches. The excellent character work and classic Tarantino twists become less effective. That said, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has a high production value. The cinematography, camera work, and production design are fantastic. Tarantino captures the zeitgeist of Sharon Tate's Hollywood. He just takes forever doing it.
In 1969 Hollywood, former lead actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is suffering a career crisis. He's been relegated to guest starring roles as the "heavy", after the cancellation of his long-running western, Bounty Law. As Rick struggles with self-doubt and alcoholism, a famed producer eyes him for an opportunity in Italy.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick's stunt double, driver, handyman, and "go-fer". A stalwart friend to his melancholic boss, Cliff picks up the pieces and provides a needed shoulder. A tough as nails war veteran, Cliff has a reputation that haunts him in the business. He understands his role as a lackey, and appreciates any work that Rick provides.
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is Hollywood's new golden girl. Gorgeous, bubbly, and kindhearted, Sharon basks in the glow of stardom. Newly married to the brilliant director Roman Polanski, the couple become Rick's neighbors. As Rick, Cliff, and Sharon go about their business in Tinseltown, an ominous presence becomes noticeable. A cult of sexually provocative women and dangerous men have coalesced around an evil leader.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes an in depth look at the lives of Rick and Cliff. The movie star and his stuntman shadow live in the same world, but have vastly different stations in life. Rick, for all of his internal struggles, is wealthy and famous. Cliff is dirt poor, the horse that draws the cart. They need each other to survive. Cliff isn't jealous or envious of Rick. He's Rick's biggest cheerleader. He's just happy to be at the party. Rick takes Cliff for granted at times, but knows a solid man always has his back. Their journey together is well written and acted. Quentin Tarantino breathes tremendous depth into their characters. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt flawlessly share the screen. The film's greatest success is that neither actor overpowers the other.
Quentin Tarantino did not spread the character wealth to Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie is treated as fluff. Sharon Tate giggles, dances, and bounces through the film like a ping pong ball. Tarantino uses her as a prop to set up the imminent Manson Family attack. Sharon Tate represents all that was beautiful and innocent. The film takes a different approach than expected, but Sharon Tate deserved more.
The focus on small details wears thin quickly. The characters spend fifteen minutes of this film driving around. Tarantino wants to immerse you in his vision of the time. He accomplishes that goal, but then drowns the audience. The clever bits, like inserting DiCaprio into classic movies a la Forrest Gump, are fleeting. I was genuinely bored for a significant chunk of the runtime. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is sorely in need of a shorter edit. Tarantino becomes labored by his affinity to the period.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a solid film that's certainly well acted by the male leads. It's not as crisp or entertaining as Quentin Tarantino's best works. His diehard fans will gobble up the excess, but there was much fat to be cut. Or at least replace the minutiae with additional dialogue for Margot Robbie. Sharon Tate needed to be more compelling. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is produced by Columbia Pictures and Heyday Films with distribution by Sony Pictures.