"It's official, old buddy. I'm a has-been," Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells Cliff (Brad Pitt) early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If people recognize Rick at all, it's for a long-ago-canceled Western series called Bounty Law. No one recognizes his neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), but her star is on the ascent. By the end of the film, their paths will intersect, though only in a way Quentin Tarantino could have imagined.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino's most straightforward film to date. It doesn't begin with a classic dialogue scene, an iconic shot or an action set-piece. It starts with Rick meeting film producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who wants to put Rick in a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci, despite Rick's clear objections. It's only pride keeping him from saying yes, and eventually, he agrees. But the journey to get there is slow-going, especially for the audience. This is the first Tarantino movie that drags at the outset instead of the midsection.
The film unfolds over three important days in 1969: February 8, when Rick meets Marvin; February 9, when Rick films a pilot and Cliff meets the followers of Charles Manson; and August 9, when violence comes to Rick and Sharon's cul-de-sac. There are flashbacks, of course, but no crazy jumbled chronology. A lot of QT's hallmarks are present: the great soundtrack, the quippy dialogue, and yes, the close-ups of bare feet. But there are times when it feels like he fetishized the little details – like food packaging, TV ads, and radio chatter – that he lost sight of the story. The journeys of these three characters overlap in interesting ways, but it seems to add up to little more than, "Well, that was kinda weird."
Yet I find myself fascinated all the same. This is one of DiCaprio's best performances to date. We all know he can go to the extreme (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Revenant), but this is one of his most vulnerable and intriguing turns since Catch Me If You Can. Rick is complacent until Marvin and one of his pint-sized co-stars give him the honesty and confidence he needs to kick his second act into high gear. And Pitt is effortlessly cool as his best friend, occasionally living out Rick's on-screen exploits in real life.
And then there's Robbie. She's certainly wonderful as Sharon Tate, especially in a scene where she watches her performance in the Matt Helm flick The Wrecking Crew, taking in the audience reaction to her comedic timing and physical prowess. But she has so little impact on the main story that it's ultimately hard to figure out the point of having her in here at all. Taking her scenes out would no doubt make this a weaker film, but Tarantino didn't give her enough to feel like including her has made for a better film.
So yes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a bit of a mixed bag. Yet there's so much good here – including Cliff's misadventures on the set of The Green Hornet, Rick righteously using a flamethrower, and one very good dog – it still feels like a success, especially in the midst of such a disappointing summer.