OnScreen Review: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

At this point, it seems like we should know what we’re getting with a Quentin Tarantino film, right? There’s going to be loving to old films he loves, great characters with great dialogue, and at least some moments of hyper-violence. With Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino manages to keep the formula fresh and vibrant. He’s also expanding his storytelling palate, which is probably going to be slightly divisive for some.

The film is an ode to 1969 Hollywood, fifty years in the past, at a time of change in the industry. The film centers on two friends, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Clint Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton finds himself at a crossroads in his career; once a famous actor on a TV western named Bounty Law, he’s now struggling after a failed attempt at a movie career. Clint’s career dried up before Rick’s, so he is somewhat sympathetic, but continues to try and encourage his friend and lift his spirits, as well as drive him around town and be a general handyman for him around the house. That house happens to be next door to famed director Roman Polanski and his new bride Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Tate, famously, was murdered by the Mason Family in the summer of 1969.

Tarantino has always loved to play around in pop culture and indulge himself in particular aspects of all of his films. This time around, he clearly wanted to make an episode of the TV shows he grew up watching as a kid. There are several vignettes of footage showing DiCaprio’s Dalton acting in several TV shows that faithfully recreate the look and feel of TV shows of that era. There are extended scenes of life on set as Dalton is struggling through a particularly difficult day, in no small part due to his alcoholism. A heart-to-heart with an eight-year-old method actor helps him focus, the scenes DiCaprio shares with young actress Julia Butters in these scenes are some of the real highlights of the film, seeing a child actor hold her own with some of DiCaprio stature is quite entertaining.

Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate, something of a controversy coming out of Cannes when Tarantino was salty with a reporter over the lack of lines for Robbie, is mesmerizing. Tate is something of a tragic and iconic figure given her death at such a young age and as she was a rising star. In some ways this film attempts to further elevate her iconic status while also humanizing her and making her something more than just a victim of a horrible news story. Whether she’s dancing at the Playboy mansion, walking around LA, or slipping into a screening to watch herself on the big screen soaking in the laughs she is getting from people enjoying her performance, she holds the camera’s adoring gaze.

The best performance of the film, though, belongs to Brad Pitt as Clint Booth. His is a far more unglamorous life than that of his buddy Dalton. He knows his place in life and accepts it. He’s hitched his saddle, as it were, with Dalton and is a friend that is, as the film says, closer than a brother but not quite a wife.” His living situation is far less glamorous, living in a trailer with his very obedient dog. He spends a lot of time driving, an aspect of the film that really hammers home the sense of place with LA. He also spends his time doing odd jobs around the house for Dalton, like repairing his TV antenna, which gives him time to reflect on why he struggles to get stunt work now, which leads to a great extended flashback where he gets into a tussle on set with Bruce Lee.

He’s also the character that gets to interact with the Manson Family in advance of their murderous acts. He picks up a hitchhiker who brings him to the old Spahn Ranch where the family is hanging out. The story of the Manson Family is endlessly fascinating in a twisted way, and while they’re not at the center of the film, they are constantly lurking as interlopers in the story and threatening to become more prominent later.

This is a very different film from Tarantino compared to his previous films. Most of his films are ensemble pieces that are sprawling in some way. A lot of familiar faces pop up here for sure. This film is less plot-driven than most of the others. It’s definitely building to what turns out to be a gonzo third act, but for most of the 2-hour 41-minute runtime, Tarantino seems content to luxuriate in the setting of the film and let things drift for a bit. For some, this may come off as languishing or meandering. This film will certainly not silence any of the Tarantino critics who think he needs an editor to tighten his films up a bit. I did some exploring online, and while it doesn’t seem as though Tarantino was much of a fan of his work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does feel like it is Tarantino’s version of a Robert Altman film; almost like it is his Nashville in a way.

The title is also a nod to older films like Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America. Tarantino’s friend Robert Rodriguez even made Once Upon a Time in Mexico. But the title is also a nod to the fairy tale aspect of the phrase “Once upon a time…” In the last decade, Tarantino has not been shy about dipping his toes into the waters of historical wish fulfillment fantasies, which was saw with Inglourious Basterds and to a slightly lesser degree with Django Unchained. The title practically screams similar fortunes await with this film and he delivers. As this is supposed to be his penultimate film, I’m curious to see if he will try to right any other historical wrongs before retires from directing.

Sitting with the film a day, I’m not entirely sure where I stand with this film. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, but it is a very interesting evolution from a director who is a master of his craft and fully in control. People’s mileage with that full control may vary depending on whether they think some of his indulgences should be tempered. While I’ll likely need a second viewing to properly place it in the overall QT oeuvre, I have no qualms saying I’ve enjoyed other films of his more, but I also have no hesitation in saying that I enjoyed it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars