Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Quentin Tarantino | July 26, 2019
The only thing that Quentin Tarantino loves more than making movies is movies themselves, and that has been perfectly evident throughout all eight movies of his illustrious career. This love is put fully on display in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the 9th film from the director that is essentially Tarantino’s ode to cinema, but more specifically the glitz and glamor of late 1960s Hollywood, which Tarantino fully recreates and embraces with a keen eye.
It’s 1969 and we see Los Angeles through the eyes of Western TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), once a big-time actor whose star starting to fade. His stuntman and good friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) – who lives in a mess of a trailer with his pitbull Brandy – tries to help him keep it all together, although Dalton’s crippling self-doubt and alcoholism don’t make it easy. Their storyline is split with Sharon Tate (Suicide Squad‘s Margot Robbie), who moved in next door to Dalton with Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), and, of course, the appearance of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and the Manson Family (with members played by Margaret Qualley, Please Stand By‘s Dakota Fanning, The Dead Don’t Die‘s Austin Butler, Girls‘ Lena Dunham, and Maya Hawke).
Without diving into spoilers, Tarantino takes what is a familiar story from a dark segment of American history and gives it his own spin. Things don’t quite go as you’d expect, which should be a given when you really examine the “Once Upon a Time” fragment of the title.
The Manson Family aspect is a part of the subject, not the whole. The true heart and soul is the idea of Hollywood and the art of moviemaking and the passion behind it all. Rick is struggling to convince himself of his relevancy in an industry that may be leaving him behind. He is trying to keep his career going but finds mostly bad guy roles left to fill on less-than-stellar gun-slinging Westerns on TV. As his star begins to fade, a rising star in Tate has emerged right next door to him. This also runs parallel to the emergence of hippie culture, which is a thorn in the Rick and Cliff’s sides, as they see a new Hollywood they don’t recognize.
Tarantino takes his time and uses his signature dialogue style to explore and gaze upon this period of Hollywood that clearly holds a special place in his heart. This includes tributes to classic films and TV shows, as well as nostalgic basking in the glow of famous landmarks, old marquees, and signs that are captured perfectly (on 35mm) by Tarantino’s longtime trusted cinematographer Robert Richardson, all soundtracked to timeless late 1960s songs (including Paul Revere and the Raiders, Los Bravos, Neil Diamond, and The Mamas and the Papas) that truly transport you to this era.
The film, which takes place essentially across the span of three days in 1969 is a hangout movie that explores the ins and outs of the industry, with Tarantino’s love for it bursting out of the screen. Many viewers may be expecting a different resolution or film entirely but should go in knowing that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is essentially Tarantino professing his love for this era of Hollywood and movie-making – one that Tarantino captures with a mix of delight and even melancholic sadness.
It’s hard to believe that it took this long to see DiCaprio and Pitt, two of our last real “movie stars”, share the screen together. But it was worth the wait as they are absolutely dynamite both together and on their own. DiCaprio usually plays the charmer but he channels something different here as a washed-up actor, with plenty of humorous moments in between the darker character moments. However, it’s Pitt who steals the show in a commanding turn that is riveting every step of the way and his best performance since Moneyball. Margot Robbie is utterly sweet and sincere at Tate, lighting up the screen like a bright ray of sunshine whenever she appears, which isn’t nearly enough. Also in short shrift are Al Pacino’s agent Marvin Schwarzs, Tarantino regulars Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell, Timothy Olyphant, and Luke Perry.
Running at a length of 2 hours and 41 minutes, some of it feels a bit extraneous and a bit of trimming could’ve resulted in a leaner tighter picture. Some scenes work better than others, when they’re good, they’re really good. This includes Rick’s encounter with his 8-year-old co-star (Julia Butters) on set, Cliff’s backlot encounter with Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh), and a rather sinister encounter at the Manson compound at Spahn Ranch.
Then there’s the wild climax at the end that may be the most familiar Tarantino scene here. Chances are this scene may turn out to be your favorite or least favorite scene based on what you go in expecting out of this particular Tarantino experience. But it passes the baton to the actual ending, one that is surprisingly hopeful. It’s this feeling that surprisingly lingers throughout Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and gives you a Tarantino that has so many elements of other films (mainly Jackie Brown) while also embracing something sweet, tender and sincere. It’s his ultimate love letter to the movies. With only one film supposedly left for us, we can only imagine how he plans to bow out.