Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood: A Tarantino Love Letter To Cinema, Moviemaking, And The End Of An Era
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino is back to take us on a blast to the past with his 9th feature, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. This slow-burning buddy hangout finally unites Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and gives us another slice of revisionist history in that particular Tarantino way. Get strapped in, its wild antics are sure to take you for one helluva swinging ride.
A faded television actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of a western TV series, and his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood's Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. Both are struggling to make it in a Hollywood they don't recognize anymore. But Rick has a very famous next-door neighbor...Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Tarantino is a filmmaker who vigorously infiltrated popular culture (for better or worse) after having his nose pressed against the glass of the Hollywood industry for about a decade. Ever since his breakthrough with Pulp Fiction (though really since Reservoir Dogs), he has continuously excited both cinephiles and casual moviegoers with his particular brand of character-driven pulp. He’s always been a little ahead of the curve, and often times, he’s one of the few modern filmmakers who always seems to set and solidify new styles and trends. Over the years, he’s more than proven his place as a master of storytelling, but for all their glorious kitsch, his films have always lacked one thing that I’ve always wanted to see: something personal and reflexive with something real to say.
One of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’s many gifts is giving us that version of Tarantino that waxes inwardly in a way that we’ve never really seen from him before. He isn’t just looking back over his shoulder to a pivotal era of American history, the Hollywood industry, and his childhood; he seems to be as self-reflexive and contemplative about his own career as DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton (though not in exactly the same way), pondering the impact of his career legacy and what it all may mean (or not) as it nears its close. The film is loaded with everything you’d expect from a Tarantino film — wonderful dialogue, rich characters, violence, alt. history, and an unpredictable story — but its many pockets of lucid wisdom and reflection make Once Upon a Time … a bit meatier than other Tarantino efforts, despite its intentionally unhurried plot and pacing.
With Once Upon a Time …, Tarantino crafts a languid hangout film that leisurely strolls from scene to scene without much of a care. Its plot is incredibly threadbare and uncomplicated for a Tarantino film, and it’s ultimately non-essential in the grand scheme; there’s no urgency or driving force behind it, and that’s OK — if you’re Tarantino. It’s all about the characters, spending time with them, and having a good time — if you can’t hang with that, you’ll likely struggle with this. In that sense, the film is kinda like a Tarantino version of Dazed and Confused for the late 60s era that melds fact and fiction into one big delicious ode to cinema and moviemaking. It may also remind fans of Jackie Brown in the sense that it’s slow-moving, compromised of little action, and is more mature-minded — Once Upon a Time … being, arguably, his most mature.
Unlike other Tarantino efforts, Once Upon a Time … doesn’t envelop you immediately. Much like its relaxed and loose-fitting plot, it takes some time (about 30 min, of you’re anything like me) before the film starts to work its magic, but once it has you under its spell, it becomes an infectious Hollywood howl that meanders through a menagerie of fantastic and truly memorable moments. Everything it lacks in plot, it more than makes up in character and atmosphere. The world feels painstakingly created, and it really pays off big — there are moments that made me feel as though I was transported straight back to the summer of ‘69. The set design and costumes are fantastic and help create a period milieu that drowns you in the best possible sense. Admittedly, it’s total nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for an era we don’t often get to see, let alone this well.
The world is filled with larger-than-life characters that jump off the screen with personality, which are elevated by the performances, particularly that of Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie. The relationship and camaraderie between DiCaprio’s Dalton and Pitt’s Booth, which has been criticized as being stiff and wooden, felt warm and authentic to me and really anchored the story. They don’t have too many scenes together, but when they do, it’s a hoot. They make scenes that could be boring, like when the pair are watching an episode of The F.B.I. (which Dalton stars in), a pure delight to bask in.
DiCaprio gives Dalton the contemplative depth and Hollywood swagger he needs and performs at the level you’d expect, but he gets outshined by Pitt, who knocks it out of the park and steals every scene. Pitt is effortlessly affable — even though his character may (or may not) be a murderer — and gives a performance that is easily one of the best performances of the year. And then there’s Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, who, despite her minimal screen time, shines as a warm effervescent ball of sunshine that does justice to Tate’s memory. She gives the film a nice heartbeat that courses in the background of this sprawling, novelistic effort.
That brings us to the ending, which you’ll either love or hate. The Manson aspect, like Tate’s involvement, sits on the periphery of this Hollywood tale, until it literally barges through the door. Tarantino mostly uses the looming threat as a source of tension and subversion, and in typical Tarantino fashion, you’re never totally sure where the film is leading you. Without spoiling the gloriously unhinged delights of its third act, Tarantino twists the events of the murders, making the Manson Family into a big joke along the way, and brings the loosely connected threads together in one beautiful fairy tale Hollywood ending that serves as a fitting sunset for our characters to ride off in.
There are some moments that could have definitely benefited from a bit more finesse (the voiceover being the most obvious), but overall, I love the ride that Once Upon a Time … took me on. It’s a kooky, grindhouse trip that only Tarantino could have crafted, and given its light, carefree demeanor and clear love for the era and (more importantly cinema), it may just be his most charming and amusing film to date.
Recommendation: If you love tales of the film industry, 60s culture, and/or Tarantino’s penchant for rich dialogue and characters, you absolutely have to check this out. Dive into the summer of ‘69, baby!
Rating: 4.5 groovy bedroom dances outta 5.
What do you think? Were you impressed with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood? Where does it rank against Tarantino’s other films? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!