Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the ninth and presumably penultimate film by Quentin Tarantino, is a must-see this summer. Seeing it in 70mm, as I did, should be a requirement but is sadly far too limited. I was lucky to catch the grainier, old-school presentation at the Village East Cinema in NYC, which further immersed me into its period piece setting. Indeed, continuing with the ongoing trend of Tarantino making movies about movies, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood showcases the grand neon glory of a distant Hollywood verging on melancholic. It’s hardly his best film, but with a director like Tarantino, even the man’s weaker films outshine most filmmaker’s best products.
In terms of production value, cinematography, performances and atmosphere, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece. It’s still full of your trademark Tarantino-esque moments, from rapid discussions of movie pop culture to obligatory foot fetishism. But the plot holding everything together feels noticeably aimless, loosely linking fictional and historical moments together as an excuse to further explore boulevard iconography. I find this fact ironic, given how, in terms of plot, this is Tarantino’s most straightforward kitsch storyline since Jackie Brown.
Taking place across the summer of 1969, we’re quickly introduced to protagonists Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a former TV actor best known for his work on the 1950’s Western show Bounty’s Law, shot in the same pastiche style as Clint Eastwood’s Rawhide. Booth (Brad Pitt) is Dalton’s longtime stuntman, chauffeur and close friend since those 50’s glory days. Basically he’s there to, as the film puts it, “carry Rick’s load.” There’s no animosity between the two but Dalton fears he’s becoming a has-been in this new decade of showbiz. Hollywood producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) wants him to go overseas and make spaghetti western films (a genre from which Tarantino owes the film’s name) but Dalton sees that as another career decline move. Yet his current predicament is hardly any better, serving as the antagonistic “heavy” on 60’s television whom new actors beat up to boost their popularity.
It’s thematically telling that new Hollywood talent comes in the form of Rick Dalton’s neighbors: director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The latter’s presence dominates this film quite deliberately, as the summer of 1969 remains infamous for Tate’s murder at the hands of Charles Manson followers who broke into their house. Her death heralded an end of innocence on two levels: the glamorized illusion of Hollywood, and the rise of New Hollywood artists like, ironically enough, Polanski himself. While Robbie doesn’t get much focus until the 30 minute mark and an actual character moment until what feels like an hour in, Tarantino at least frames her like a person. Robbie plays Tate as innocent in a kind, carefree manner, letting her simply enjoy life rather than be remembered for post-mortem headlines a la Gwen Stacey in Spider-Man comics.
Rick and Cliff, sadly, aren’t as detailed as other characters from Tarantino’s previous eight films. DiCaprio and Pitt have great chemistry together and both give their best performances in years (literally for DiCaprio, who hasn’t acted since The Revenant), delivering both intensity, humor and pathos in equal doses across a nearly 3-hour runtime. They’re polar opposites- Rick has alcohol issues and frequently worries about his fading status while Cliff seems content to casually drift and live in his trailer outside a drive in theater- but the two still view each other as friends. Yet they lack the pastiche identity that Tarantino infused into his previous figures as subversive genre archetypes. At the same time, however, both men work as ciphers for exploring Once Upon a Time’s true character: 60’s Hollywood.
There’s a distinct “day in the life” vibe to the first two acts, which follow various stories like Rick taking on a villain role in the show Lancer, Tate attending a movie screening for one of her films, and Cliff picking up a hippie hitchhiker belonging to Manson’s cult. Each are fun experiences in their own right, but it’s how the scenes showcase an immersive iconography of old Hollywood that sell the moments. From retro cars and pop music, flashing neon signs illuminating the boulevard blocks and era-defining locations like the Playboy mansion, this is an ode to a setting that predates Tarantino’s childhood. Perhaps the film is his way of re-capturing its fairy tale-like movie magic, hence the title.
That’s not to say the film isn’t populated by its own colorful figures. Standouts include Kurt Russell as a fellow stuntman wary of Cliff’s past and Mike Moh as a pitch-perfect imitation of Bruce Lee, capturing the martial art icon’s mannerisms and fighting stances with ease. Easily the biggest shock is ten-year old Julia Butters as Trudi, a bluntly precocious child actor whom Rick meets on the set of his Western acting gig and somehow manages to outshine DiCaprio during her limited screen time. Tarantino’s films have a knack for drawing attention to certain talents, from Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction to Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Bastards, but Butters is a new force to be reckoned with. You’ll want to see more from her when this is done.
Just like every Tarantino entry, film is crucial to Once Upon a Time’s visual and rhetorical appeal. Film literally permeates every corner of this Hollywood setting: movie posters on billboards, theater marquees adorning the streets, actors and producers discussing what products are nostalgic or new. Multiple instances are simply devoted to characters enjoying entertainment properties from a meta perspective- some real, like Robbie watching the real Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew; others more fictitious, like a few minutes of an “old” Rick Dalton movie where an eyepatch-wearing DiCaprio torches Nazis with a flamethrower.
Characters speak film, act in film, discuss film, live in film sets- the locale is practically indebted to film’s success. It’s just that the connecting tissue linking these film-themed moments together don’t so much feel like a narrative as a compilation of “stuff” happening. Exciting stuff, but relatively unconnected stuff nonetheless. By choosing to follow these characters individually, rather than have their actions be part of an overarching development cycle, you get the sense that these various plots and subplots feel disconnected. They eventually come together during the third act, but it requires sitting through lot of build up.
It’s in the third act that Once Upon a Time decides to finally cut its restraint and go full Tarantino. A time jump to the night of the Mason invasion and a shocking climax takes the film’s image of a semi-realistic world into directions I simply can’t spoil. Needless to say this is where the trademark hyper-exaggerated violence comes in and…. wow. But whether viewers find it too much, I respect that it reinforces the bond between Rick and Cliff, two men struggling to find their place in a changing environment. Hollywood as they knew it is ending and there isn’t much they can do before the era becomes a romanticized memory. But they still have each other and, with the open roads of L.A. to drive around, that’s enough.
Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is neither Tarantino’s best film nor his most re-watchable film. But it’s easily his most poignant story in years, an homage to a unique filmmaking era in American culture that can never be re-captured. Simply on its aesthetics alone, not many people can do what Tarantino has done and recreate a world in this authentically surrealistic fashion. And, like his entire resume, it manages to stand apart from every other movie on the market, which I deeply respect. In all honestly, I found this two and a half hour storyline far more engaging than The Hateful Eight.