Quentin Tarantino’s love for watching and making movies is obvious throughout all of his filmography, but nowhere is it more prevalent and interwoven into the very fabric of the film than his latest effort Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Set in 1969, as the Golden Age of Hollywood was drawing to a close, Tarantino paints portraits of both the glamorous but tightly-wound show business life in the Hills, and the free-spirited but grimy hippie lifestyle that had spread across the country. It feels like his most personal work – both a love letter to the Hollywood classics (and the people who made them) that inspired Tarantino himself, and a melancholy reflection on career, legacy, and finding purpose in a world that has seemingly left you behind.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood follows Rick “Fuckin’” Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging actor who’s not quite a has-been (yet), but who’s career is rapidly approaching free fall. I don’t know how DiCaprio always manages to accomplish it, but he delivers yet another powerhouse performance that both delights and surprises – Rick instantly becomes a quintessential role in the Oscar winner’s career, a reminder that, damn, this man can really act his ass off. Rick might be the most emotionally accessible Tarantino protagonist to date; he’s incredibly insecure, throws tantrums and self-pity parties throughout the film’s runtime, and is forever unsure about the future of his career and his own abilities as a performer.
During a meeting with a hot shot producer (Al Pacino), Rick gets his fading stardom and downward trajectory as an actor laid out in front of him. He responds by screaming and sobbing in his car, wailing about his woes and and doomed future. Rick’s stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is able to cheer him up a bit, something that seems to be a common occurrence. Cliff has been with Rick a long time, but the two lead very different lives. Rick lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanksi, so needless to say, he’s doing alright. He enjoys everything about being a star, revels in the fame, and regularly spends time alone in his pool with a whisky sour or two (or eight). Meanwhile, Cliff lives in a rickety trailer near a drive-in theater outside of town (compare that to the dozens of luxurious upscale theaters littering the drive through Hollywood), where he cooks up mac and cheese and watches television with his dog – a dog which, despite stiff competition, just might be the best actor in the whole cast (and makes me wish my own dog could behave that extraordinarily well).
By this waning stage in Rick’s career, Cliff nowadays is less of a stuntman and more of a personal assistant. He’s been Rick’s driver ever since the actor got his license revoked following a bout of drunk driving, he acts as a handyman, fixing everything around Rick’s house, and he does several errands for him. But Cliff doesn’t mind – sure, he would definitely like if he could get more consistent stunt work, but life just doing this is pretty okay too. Cliff is a guy who takes everything one day at a time instead of worrying about the past or future, and is entirely sure of himself (the opposite of Rick). Pitt is perfect in the role with his trademark suave confidence, someone who always comes across as very self-assured but without any arrogance. Well, besides the time he fantasizes about besting Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in a fight.
It’s no wonder Cliff is the one to became tangled up with a gang of hippies who have taken up residence at Spahn Ranch. But these hippies reveal themselves to have something a little sinister about them, a darker side that Cliff is no stranger too himself. Just because Rick is the star doesn’t mean that Cliff isn’t famous in his own right – he’s known for allegedly murdering his wife and getting away with it. Whether this is true or not remains ambiguous, but it’s place in his past continuously forms his purpose in the film. Cliff is familiar with violence, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. All he’s waiting for is provocation.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood‘s structure consists of two days in the lives of Rick, Cliff, and Tate at the start of 1969, before it jumps ahead to a fated day in August of that same year. Previous knowledge of the Manson family and the murders associated with them is much needed here (the film doesn’t give you a history lesson), both for context and the fact that if Hollywood is in the spirit of any other Tarantino movie, it’s Inglorious Basterds. The director takes a stab at creating a new fictionalized version of historical events once again, which, like Basterds before it, is packed with the filmmaker’s signature shocking violence that fills him, and us, with so much glee. You can imagine Tarantino’s face while he imagines “But what if this happened instead?” and is thrown into a fit of maniacal laughter. The Manson murders are regarded as the official end of the 60s and its way of life, the perfect event for the director to play with.
Like all Tarantino movies, Hollywood‘s biggest strength is its dialogue, and the astoundingly talented cast that delivers it. I don’t know any other screenwriter that matches Tarantino’s ability of cool movie dialogue (the stuff you always wish you could say and talk like) that still feels real and believable; I really think it’s the combination of his writing and the perfect casting decisions. Hollywood is the right kind of nostalgia (how fitting that it’s throwing down with The Lion King this weekend) that isn’t spoon fed to you, and its world feels true and realized. It’s certainly one of the director’s better films, but it’s not quite a masterpiece.
Near the start of the movie, a narrator pauses the action and gives the audience some information. It’s an interesting device, reminding me a little of the fourth wall breaks in The Big Short, but we don’t see it used again until the third act when it abruptly returns (long after you’ve forgotten about it), where it then pummels you with tons of information filling you in on what happened during the six month time jump. It’s strange to see this used so inconsistently, and the second time it pops up it feels rushed, something that the third act as a whole suffers from. I like how the film ends and the note it chooses it leave on, but the ending still feels a bit short and disconnected from the rest of the film – it’s abrupt and might leave you with the feeling of “oh, that’s all?”. Hollywood is two hours and forty one minutes long, but it feels like it honestly should be longer, like you’ve missed something that might not have been totally vital to the story being told, but whose absence is still felt.
Still, this film is fantastic. Tarantino fans will be satisfied, there’s a lot of laughs and a hell of a lot of great acting going on, and plenty of moments of inspired fun, such as the numerous mini-movies that Tarantino made every time they cut to a film or television show that Rick appeared in. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood might not be the filmmaker’s best work, but it feels like his most personal, ending on much more of a wistful positiveness than you might be accustomed to from his films. Rick Dalton’s career might fade out, but I don’t think Quentin Tarantino’s will any time soon.
4 / 5 Stars
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is now playing in theaters everywhere.