As most of you know, this is the story of a Hollywood actor facing the real mid-life crisis that he may be a has-been and his trusty sidekick who is almost supernaturally tough and cool. It is mostly the story of the former’s journey, the latter’s wisdom, and their friendship. And then, there is also the story of how both intersect with one of the most horrifying events in Hollywood history.
To my great surprise, I felt the one thing, throughout this film, I would never have expected in a Tarantino film. I was bored. Really bored. So bored that, since I was the only person in the theater, I actually texted a friend to ask him if it was going to pick up because I didn’t know if I could just sit there through this incredible level of boredom for another hour and forty-five minutes. Couldn’t have imagined that going in. Fortunately, the movie picks up enough about an hour and a half in to have made me stay through it, because I think I ultimately did enjoy it, but also delivers pretty lightly on the promise and the ask of the audience.
There’s a lot to like in the movie, in little bits. Pitt, an actor I’ve never been particularly fond of but acknowledge he can be a great movie-star, shines brilliantly in a role that would be career-defining for someone who wasn’t already such a huge star. Cliff, as a friend of mine put it, makes you want to be tough and cool. DiCaprio, for whom my disdain is quite well-documented here and formerly on RT, gives just one hell of a performance, big enough to not only not be washed out by but to actually balance-out Pitt’s shine. Really, this is the best I’ve ever seen him and the one scene that is the acting centerpiece of the film for him is punctuated by a remark that really hits the nail on the head. And then there is Margot Robbie who hits the exact right notes in her nearly luminous portrayal of doomed starlet Sharon Tate. I completely forgot it was Robbie except when I pulled back to remark how good she was.
Several smaller performances really stand out as well, particularly Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, who gives what I felt could be a star-making turn, so perfectly full of that childish version of worldliness that you can see in young people who lost their innocence too young but haven’t really learned anything about the world. And yet she radiates sexuality and even a bit of menace, without overselling either.
I also thought Timothy Olyphant gave a strong performance in an essentially meaningless role. Many others were very good but seemed much more like stunt-casting so that Tarantino could wink at the audience, which he simply cannot restrain himself from doing. I have read many saying this might be Tarantino's "most mature" work yet, and that may be true, but he still has a little more growing up to do to deliver a film that is unmarred by his childish ego.
On the other hand, Tarantino shows an amazing feel for tone in this film as it actually shifts quite a bit from light and comic to nearly tragic to almost mystical and even takes a detour through a very convincing run at horror (at the end of one particularly long but effective scene, I really, really wanted Tarantino’s last film to be a horror movie). All of this was particularly rewarding as I (and many others) have felt his handling of tone in multiple recent films were very clumsy to the detriment of those movies.
As many have discussed the climax of the movie is a lot fun, but even with its extreme violence, it doesn’t seem satisfying enough for either the length of run-time it took to arrive or the subject-matter it takes on. The denouement helps with this some, giving the whole film, and history itself, a sweet and slightly magical turn.
Ultimately, this is good film, but I would not say a great one, enjoyable if you expect just to watch the players play their parts and not for the film to generate much motion or deliver much excitement. There’s a lot of time spent looking at an era in Hollywood through characters that are in it but not the kings of it and lots of little love-notes to the film, television, and culture of that time and place. Enjoyable but maybe over-long and over-slow, I’d watch it again, but maybe not the whole thing in one sitting.