“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is ostensibly a movie about Charles Manson’s Family and the Tate murders. When many critics first heard that, they were stunned. It was said- no, demanded that Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t dare add his special touch to such a thorny topic! However, he did, and he had a right to do so. In fact, he had a right to take what some critics consider serious, “problematic” missteps. Yes, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” focuses mostly on two white males in the acting world (Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth). Yes, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) doesn’t have the most complex character.
Yes, there are a few scenes which are definitely politically incorrect. However, what many critics forget is that, first and foremost, this is an alternate, fictionalized universe that Tarantino presents, and its leading characters don’t simply exist to win points from the emerging cultural vanguard. It’s also not even that offensive of a movie, unless you’re really applying a microscope to it and exaggerating what the film is (an increasingly common habit among critics).
In fact, while this film does have some drama, it is readily apparent that its tongue is firmly planted in its cheek, and that it’s simply not a film for easily offended viewers (duh!). With Tarantino’s reputation already miles ahead of him, aren’t most fans and critics aware of this aspect of his films? Apparently that’s not the case. For example, some have criticized Tarantino films for female foot fetish. Well, guess what: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” doesn’t shy away from that, either! In fact, by now, they almost see, to be Tarantino’s version of a middle finger to critics. Others criticize the way in which Sharon Tate’s character seems vacuous, lacking “agency” (another huge buzzword nowadays, and probably revealing an agenda).
One review notes that her character doesn’t do much beyond see her own movie in a theater, selfishly appreciating her own scenes and audience cheers for her. However, this reveals almost more about the critics than her own character, frankly. The ability of an actor to innocently enjoy one’s craft is a way of celebrating acting, which is partly what this film is about. In fact, this transcends film and relates to the arts in general. Most musicians like having fans, as do most painters, as examples. If anything, this is one of the biggest, brightest moments of the film, not something to beat it up for! It’s not necessarily even about ego-centrism, as art basically requires an audience in order to be adequately appreciated. Tate’s character also never goes over the top with the scene, either. She just enjoys that people enjoy her movie!
Others have criticized a scene where Pitt’s character (again, named Cliff Booth) has a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). The critic’s focus is, of course, on the offensive fact that a white man is fighting Lee. However, the scene is very much functional in the film’s plot. It shows that Cliff Booth is willing to scrap with anyone, and is actually an impressive fighter in his own right. Also, at no point does Tarantino’s story suggest Cliff Booth is a perfect guy anyway. In fact, some other characters believe Booth murdered his wife, giving him a permanently tarnished reputation. Perhaps the ultimate point is this: Sure. Such a character isn’t perfect, but he’s probably better than the Manson Family murderers – at least by a little. On top of that, it is Lee who asks for the challenge. Why not also criticize his chosen profession, which involved glorified fighting? In any case, the scene is also a reminder that, at one point in her career, the actual Sharon Tate had fight scenes choreographed by Bruce Lee, for the film “The Wrecking Crew.” It’s perhaps a glimpse into her emerging potential as an actor, and a hint at what could have been, had it not been for some random maniacs.
Speaking of which, the Manson Family eventually becomes prominent in the film, but not nearly as soon as expected. That brings us to the real biggest sin of this film: It drags along at times. Yes, this is perhaps the first Tarantino film to feel a bit sluggish at times. Fortunately, it’s engaging enough to keep a sympathetic viewer’s attention. Unfortunately, if someone hates this film from the beginning onward, the 2 hour and 45 minute run time will become pretty tedious. There is enough humor and pop culture nostalgia to choke a horse, but it sometimes distracts from story development. Even the scenes focusing on Rick Dalton’s acting seem out of sync with the story, which is a shame. DiCaprio brings his A game in these scenes, blending humor with insight into a real actor’s depression over a looming sense of failure. Still, as great as they are, these seems almost seem extraneous to the plot, especially by the film’s end, which they have practically nothing to do with.
To sum it all up, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a good movie, but not Tarantino’s best. It’s also not particularly offensive unless you’re basically seeking offense. It’s also refreshing that Tarantino regards this murderous clan of “hippies” the way he did Nazis in his “Inglourious Basterds.” The best performances here are by Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and child actor Julia Butters. The Manson Family standouts are Austin Butler as Charles “Tex” Watson, Madisen Beaty as Patricia Krenwinkel, Victoria Pedretti as Leslie Van Houten and Mikey Madison as Susan “Sadie” Atkins.