“…an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens..” John Lennon on Revolution No. 9, The White Album.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, and possibly the film with the lowest stakes. There is no vengeful bride or Nazi hunters or evil slave traders. By lowering the stakes and decreasing the violence, Tarantino has presented arguably his most fully-realized characters.
The majority of the film follows fading Hollywood leading man, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rick’s stuntman/personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Ultimately, this is a slice-of-life buddy movie.
Before venturing any further into the particulars, those who really don’t like Tarantino’s brand of movie, won’t find much here to change their minds. All of the usual Tarantino obsessions are here: Westerns, World War II, pop culture in-jokes, altered history, extended dialogue scenes that seem separate from the main narrative, and a crackling pop music soundtrack. With Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino seems content to mostly keep the bombast and theatrics in-check.The majority of his stylistic flourishes are spent recreating the look and feel of period TV and movies as well as recreating an uncanny vision of late ‘60s Los Angeles.
As the film opens, we are immediately introduced to Cliff (Brad Pitt) and Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) in their heyday, during an on-set interview, in the early ’60s, when Rick was the rugged leading man and Cliff was his stuntman. Fast forward to February of 1969. Now Rick is relegated to playing the bad guy in a series of one-off appearances on TV shows, only to brighten the stars of younger, up-and-coming actors. This predictably has Rick spiraling into alcoholism and doubt when being faced with the prospect of being a leading actor in Spaghetti Westerns.
Similarly, Cliff, no longer wanted as a stuntman, is little more than Rick’s driver and personal assistant. All of this is set in the context of Rick discovering he lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, both of whom see their stars rising. Much early press has been made about the relatively small role played by Margot Robbie, and the poster does present her as equal to Pitt and DiCaprio, but her character is really not the main focus here.
The bulk of the movie revolves around the parallel paths of both Rick and Cliff during about a two day period. Rick is mostly seen struggling with one of his bad-guy-of-the-week roles in yet another Western. DiCaprio hams it up appropriately. Cliff, meanwhile has a run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and eventually acts out his own strange alternative Western when he takes one of Charles Manson’s (Damon Herriman) children back to the Spahn Ranch. Special credit has to be given to Pitt here. Pitt nearly steals every scene he’s in, bringing a sort of kick-ass Kato Kaelin with a touch of Tyler Durden energy to his role.
Tarantino occasionally diverts his gaze to Robbie, allowing us to follow her as she tries to judge the level of her own fame at a local theater playing one of her movies (The Wrecking Crew) Shortly after, we see Tate at a bookstore, momentarily noticing a replica of the Maltese Falcon. I wondered as this movie progressed, if the inclusion of the most famous macguffin of all time was an accident. There is quite a surprising Macguffin in this movie that will be both loved and hated. I loved it.
So, by now, everyone knows that with the inclusion of Tate, Polanski, and Manson, a major event will play a role in this movie. It does, but I certainly won’t spoil it here. The direction Tarantino takes this most infamous historical moment is satisfying for this viewer, but might be frustrating to others.
In the final analysis, this falls definitely on the better-half of Tarantino’s work. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is peppered with much humor, a bit of tension, a few great performances (especially Pitt’s), and an overall love of movies. As usual, Tarantino’s cast is deep and impressive, including Dakota Fanning, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, and Bruce Dern. At nearly 3 hours, the pace is brisk and varied, even keeping my oft-bored wife entertained.
Ultimately, it’s the small moments that shine and will truly stick with me. One memorable sequence, simply follows Pitt’s character feeding his dog in his run-down trailer behind a drive-in theater. Like that moment, this movie isn’t always pretty, but it’s damned hard not to like.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars
On the latest episode of CinemAddicts, Anderson Cowan and Greg Srisavasdi offer up their thoughts on Quentin Tarantino: