To say that this movie is self-complacent would be a gigantic understatement. As gigantic maybe as Tarantino’s memory, overloaded with scores of details that he doesn’t care to sort out. So he unloads them in bulk. The result : it’s like you go to a promising party but end up cornered most of the night by some drunk guy who absolutely wants to share his opinions about everything.
Right from the start you get vignette after vignette, self-indulgent, overlong spoof sequences that bog down the main narrative. What with all the stuff Tarantino has learnt about movies he can’t shorten exposition to clever ellipses ? Once upon a time I thought he was very good with dialogue, but I guess it is no fun to toil and write fine lines (no just snappy one-liners from time to time) when Sony will greenlight anything you want to shoot.
Once upon a time in Hollywood does not have a plot. It is the New Wave auteur in Tarantino who does not think he needs a plot. He has a couple of characters, a dozen anecdotes and the rest is talent. Self-conscious talent, lazy talent, talent isolated in the middle of a creative process. More like naked skills, each trying separately to express its full potential.
The hero and his sidekick are losers: how do you build a story around losers ? You need rhythm and some kind of McGuffin (wasn’t it all there in Pulp Fiction?), not some vague exploration of the meaning of life. The plot is limited to the draft premise: a has-been TV actor and his stunt double cope with reality in Hollywood around the time of the Manson Family murders. The backdrop of the murders is the only narrative asset. We are teased all along, we even have an extensive reconstitution of life at the Spahn Ranch… all this just to toy around and end with the kind of ultra-violent carnival that Tarantino fans seem to revere. Clearly the challenge of mentioning the sordid Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969 was not only above Tarantino’s mental ability, but grossly using background anecdotes from it as fodder for his inspiration was within his moral scope.
As always I am judging this movie on its merits from a movie enthusiast point of view. But Tarantino is much more than a movie enthusiast. He is a guttonous movie fanatic. He is a guru with followers who let themselves be impressed, just like with Charles Manson. Many more followers than Charles Manson; fortunately Tarantino followers are only trained to see the fun in violence.