Terrible Men at the Movies: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and ‘Mikey & Nicky’

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“I don’t understand why someone would go through all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to tell us what we can’t do and what you won’t fight for,” Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren said to true doofus John Delaney, also running, who has argued that what Warren or Bernie Sanders wants to do is “impossible” but has no good ideas of his own.

It was the one moment that mattered from the Democratic debates last week. Warren offered a chance to luxuriate in the possibility that there is something like hope left out there, a detour from the posturing, condescension (“Go easy on me, kid,” Joe Biden told Kamala Harris, a 54-year-old woman, on night two of the debate), and obsequiousness on display by a group of mostly older white men who have never been told “no”—and at least one in Biden who can’t understand why the presidency is simply not his already—running for president, it seems, because they can.

Being buried in male neediness masquerading as strength for nearly three hours in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (playing pretty much everywhere including the Parkway and the Senator Theatre) felt a bit like watching the two nights of debates: antediluvian male assholes up there on a screen yammering, empowered by a caustic kind of yearning, the whole endeavor suggesting something would be lost if they do not continue their reign over any and everything, and occasionally offset by a woman who isn’t given the opportunity to say as much she’d like to say.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows fading-out action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, pretty much playing Alan Resnick in Adult Swim’s creepy cowboy short May I Please Enter?) and Dalton’s stuntman buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, handsome, hawt, and weary as always) through the winter and then summer of 1969 as the Manson family murders percolate, and actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, who does a lot with a little here, playing an actor best known for being a murder victim) watches her career escalate thanks to a winsome, slapstick-y role in half-assed Dean Martin spy lark The Wrecking Crew

Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The movie very much rescues Tate from being a famous murder victim and instead offers up an actor with talent and a woman with hopes and ambition. In one wondrous scene, Tate goes to the movies to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, an audience behind her guffawing at a particularly expert pratfall, a monumental smile stretching beyond her face. It’s really moving and so loaded—a joyous pop remix of Anna Karina watching The Passion of Joan of Arc in My Life To Live.

But Tarantino gives Tate very little dialogue and not much to do except walk around Los Angeles, look excited, and listen to records—she is, for the most part, a manic hippie dream girl. In one scene, Tate picks up a young woman hitchhiking, and the two have an energetic conversation in the car, and while we see it, we never hear it. They sure are bonding though, we can tell by the looks on their faces. This, in a movie full of scenes of people driving and talking, is a key to the kind of limited form of revisionism Tarantino can explore—creepy swooning and some dunderheaded feminism is an aside to the main attraction here: Rick and Cliff, rugged losers whose whole way of living is on the way out, supposedly.

Plenty of reviews claim Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nostalgic for a sunnier, simpler Hollywood, which isn’t correct because Rick and Cliff aren’t really part of that Hollywood. Rick’s success came through cowboy television, and he drinks too much and is prone to crying and is suicidal, and Cliff is a swinging prick of a stuntman who may or may not have murdered his wife (the wife’s likely murder is played for laughs, by the way) and gets work despite a whisper network about him. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nostalgic for these kinds of men, and for much of its running time it is about glory fading and life passing them by, until, in an ending equally hateful and sentimental (which I won’t spoil), these men become heroes and get to live happily ever after along with the rest of the swinging sixties—an absurdity because these kinds of men never went away and always live happily ever after. Some of them are running for president. One of them is the president.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

A mournful sort of grime coats every frame of Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky (screening at the Charles on August 17, 19, and 22), also about awful men and their codependent pissing contest friendship. Here, at least, we watch it break apart for good when Mikey (Peter Falk), a hood with a family, slowly betrays best friend Nicky (John Cassavetes), a maniacal bookie who owes a bunch of money to a mob and is hiding out. 

Dialed up and made devastating, scored by slinky jazz that sounds as though it’s playing through thick walls one apartment away, and propelled by actors apt to murmur, scream, shout, and rarely act with a capital A, director May avoids even affording these guys a shabby nobility. They run around, yell at one another, say racist things, and harass women. It is hard to watch. “May made movies about masculinity, which is another thing that put her at odds with the feminist critics of her time,” Lindsay Zoladz of The Ringer wrote. “But the stories she told were never about the strength or supremacy of maleness so much as its limitations.” 

So here is a whole movie of only scenes like the good, vulnerable ones in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood—DiCaprio freaking out in his trailer, drunk, and screaming because he screwed his lines up, Pitt watching television and eating mac and cheese with his dog. There is nothing to revise or reimagine in Mikey & Nicky. The hit man after Nicky whines to Mikey about expenses being as much as the money he gets for the hit is a proto-Tarantino scene, though the dialogue is loose, natural, and pocked by weird one-liners. Nicky, who spends the movie running away, only pausing to cause more chaos, stops in a candy shop and asks for some ice cream. They don’t have any. “What kind of a candy store is this you don’t have ice cream?” Nicky asks an annoyed candy store owner. “It’s a candy store without ice cream,” the owner answers. That’s the joke.

John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in Mikey & Nicky

RIYL: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

As will always be the case, in an attempt to counter the very convenient though inarguably movie culture-killing world of streaming, I have limited these recommendations to movies that are available at Baltimore’s nonprofit video rental store Beyond Video (2545 N. Howard St.) and movies that are screening somewhere in Baltimore.

David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton, 2019): Grumpy, difficult hippy Crosby gets a by-the-numbers rock doc that by sheer personality alone—and a caustic self-awareness that comes with age and a whole lot of humbling—counters hagiography. Opens August 9 at the Charles.

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966): For a while, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Rick Dalton goes to Italy and makes a bunch of on-the-cheap westerns including a few with Sergio Corbucci, a real-life director whose 1966 Django is what Django Unchained—with its whirl of wooly action and odd racial politics—was kinda riffing on. There is a transcendence in so-called trash, Tarantino understands, even if he rarely translates that onto the screen, so just watch the trash.

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016): Eric Hatch’s piece on Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is excellent and echoes some of my issues with the movie and unspools a lot of them further. In it, he also recommends The Nice Guys, which he writes is “an immensely pleasurable—and, to my mind, more honest” movie than Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. He goes on: “A hilarious and violent action-comedy that revels in its amoral mayhem—and doesn’t ever pretend otherwise. The Nice Guys doesn’t embed flimsy excuses in its transgressions, it owns them. And it owns.”

Stuntman (Richard Rush, 1980): This off-the-rails Faust-meets-Hooper metamovie takes on the idea of the Hollywood stuntman as modern mythic figure (which it was around the time Tarantino was a teen) puts him up against the director-as-authoritarian archetype and lets two masculine doofs go at it—brash, ridiculous, and, unlike Tarantino, never finicky.

A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974): For a similarly rough and grimy movie involving Falk and Cassavetes that puts toxic masculinity behind it, check out A Woman Under The Influence, about mental illness and starring the incomparable Gena Rowlands. Oh yeah: It is also the best movie ever made.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood images courtesy Sony Pictures.

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