It’s possible that Leonardo DiCaprio is a victim of his own success. He’s a talented actor, of course, but after reaching such dizzying heights in past roles one can’t help but feel disappointed when he puts in a performance that is merely good. For all the dramatic posturing on display throughout Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, it’s hard to imagine fading movie star Rick Dalton making the list of his best characters.
Rather, there’s an air of déjà vu surrounding this latest turn as DiCaprio morphs into another middle-aged, middle-class man with anger issues. Granted, that he’s able to run the full gamut of the emotional spectrum with such apparent ease shows a strong grasp of his craft, and this film gives him plenty of long scenes in which to showcase that ability. But, those with no desire to study the subtleties of the profession may find it hard to muster more than a courteous appreciation for his work here.
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, he simply isn’t able to elevate a surprisingly dull script from writer-director Quentin Tarantino. The prolific filmmaker pens a rare misstep here, telling a plodding and indulgent story that finds no resolution for any of its wandering plot threads before the credits start rolling. The story is so thin on the ground that writing a synopsis is something of a challenge, encompassing little more than some scattered musings on friendship and the Hollywood machine, along with what equates to an extended cameo from the Manson Family (for some reason).
This isn’t the first time Tarantino has placed character before plot, but the ageing actor staring down the barrel of a career downturn is an archetype we’ve seen so many times before, and this instance is less sympathetic than most. Picking up the slack is stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who in spite of a very dark past somehow ends up being the more likable element of this odd couple dynamic. As many reports have suggested, Margot Robbie has very little to do as Sharon Tate, other than innocently gawp at what happens around her.
Yet in spite of its flaws, it’s difficult to disregard Once Upon a Time outright if only for its sheer competency. Tarantino knows how to make a film, shooting his actors and period setting with a level of genuine expertise. In addition, this offering bares all the familiar hallmarks shared by one of his productions, those being a star-studded supporting cast, a handful of good jokes and a smattering of senseless violence.
With all these ingredients firmly in the mix, fans of the filmmaker and his distinctive style should find just enough to hold their attention for the bloated duration. Outside of that core group, only those with a penchant for fifties cinema need seek an audience with this clunker.