Columnist discusses Quentin Tarantino’s inessential yet oddly endearing Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

by Sammy Bonasso, ’20

Two hours and 45 minutes is the perfect length for a film. My three favorites—Blade Runner 2049, Zodiac, and There Will Be Blood—all run for 165 delectable minutes (give or take). In fact, with every two-hour film I watch, I become more and more doubtful of the runtime’s ability to exceptionally worldbuild and characterize. Yet, a 2.75-hour runtime makes a filmmaker’s chief task—to constantly entertain—nearly unattainable. In such films, dialogue must snap, cinematography must excite, performances must flare and the plot must drive itself as to never lose the audience.

Quentin Tarantino’s past three movies have reached or exceeded this esteemed runtime and succeeded in almost all of the above categories, including his most recent ninth film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. But where Once Upon a Time fails—in achieving a kinetic plot—it fails spectacularly.

No impetus exists to Once Upon a Time’s plot. Tarantino introduces the protagonists, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Dalton’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), right at the beginning, but he gives them no overarching objective besides referencing contemporary culture and conversing vulgarly and wittily.

I didn’t understand this peculiar structure immediately after watching. I realize now, though, that the film is a series of interconnected vignettes, similar to Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds. However, where these two films succeed, Once Upon a Time does not.

I admire Pulp Fiction most out of Tarantino’s filmography because he gives each vignette a full, independent story with a distinguishable narrative arc—climax, resolution and all. Additionally, he separates the episodes with title cards and never jumps between them. Most of Once Upon a Time’s vignettes forgo exciting climaxes, satisfying resolutions, self-containment or even titles. They appear menial and inessential, and Tarantino cuts between them instead of allowing each to finish first.

Yet I was never bored. Despite shortcomings that might’ve crippled any other film, Tarantino entertains constantly with his characters and direction. DiCaprio commits fully to Rick Dalton’s self-absorbed and melodramatic arc and, perhaps more importantly, interacts famously with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. Tarantino’s script requires less of Pitt dramatically, but he brings such cool delivery and comedic timing to the role that Cliff Booth immediately became my favorite Tarantino character following the movie’s raucous climax.

As ambiguously as I can describe it, this climax thrilled me more than Django’s shootouts, repulsed me more than The Hateful Eight’s “dingus” monologue and made me laugh more than Inglourious Basterds’ Italian names. And, Tarantino somehow follows with a resolution even sweeter than Pulp Fiction’s.

Perhaps Once Upon a Time in Hollywood only requires a re-watch to appreciate its quirks, much the same as any Paul Thomas Anderson film. Perhaps my failure to notice the film’s episodic structure affected my experience. Perhaps Tarantino only wanted to create a love letter to Old Hollywood and not a story. But certainly, you should see it for yourself.