Marked as writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, ‘Once Upon A Time In . . . Hollywood,’ powerfully sneaks up on an audience primed by some of his past films to expect bombast and energy. A filmmaker so obviously deeply in love with cinema, who has flexed his vast knowledge and ear for dialogue in the past, instead chooses to luxuriate in a fabricated ideal world and hang with characters compiled from real sources. QT uses all the tricks of the modern day to painstakingly reconstruct the 1969 Hollywood in his mind, with Sharon Tate its symbolic sun for all to revolve around. The movie is a constant reminder of the timeless theme of generational divide, yet it focuses on a very particular time in the industry and the country, when the dark underbelly that was always there below the surface menaced and then flooded the art form and the discourse around it.
While it may be surprising that a movie as meandering and relatively constrained would spring from the same mind that’s yielded some of the most polarizing violence and suggestive outrageousness put to film, but ‘Once Upon a Time In . . . Hollywood’ earns its patience. It is after all, a movie that features the Manson family, so there’s plenty of uneasy sequences typically found in the exploitation connoisseur’s work, just not necessarily what some fans may have come to expect. One thing is certain, Tarantino has always had an affinity for this particular point in Tinsel Town history, when television really started pulling from film, just on a much smaller budget and scale. It was a time when waning movie stars slummed in small screen guest star spots, a fact a young Quentin surely didn’t realize at the time, but one that wasn’t lost on the likes of Leonardo’s DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton.
DiCaprio is a revelation in a role that surprisingly exposes a raw vulnerability, even when his performance induces roiling laughter. Rick was an up and comer who thought he could catapult television stardom into big screen success, moving from his lead role on the fictional western ‘Bounty Law’ into various cowboy and soldier turns. While he gained mild success, he just couldn’t achieve that Steve McQueen breakout, and the film opens with him taking a meeting with Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarzs (decidedly not pronounced ‘Shhwarts’), who tries to convince him to seek overseas stardom in the burgeoning ‘spaghetti western’ scene via Italian directors like Sergio Corbucci (‘Django’ – Get it?!).
DiCaprio’s Dalton leans heavily on the codependent relationship he has with his stuntman, Cliff Booth, played with such aplomb by Brad Pitt that he almost threatens to consume the film. Booth is a more familiar Tarantino creation and the bond between these men forms the spine of the whole picture. QT has created multiple engaging duos throughout his filmography, but none have seemed as fully worn in and casually intimate as these two men aging out of a culture struggling to include them. Leo’s Dalton is breaking down while Brad’s Cliff is indifferent towards it. As a result, they become completely reliant on each other without even realizing it.
No symbol contrasts this dichotomy of Hollywood old and new as much as Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, who moves in next door from Rick on the infamous Cielo Drive with new husband Roman Polanski. Robbie brings an innate sweetness to a character written in a more symbolic way scene to scene, but she’s able to present an energetic blast and force of exuberance as opposed to a party girl for the audience to place judgement on. Tarantino shoots her in a hyper real way yet somehow avoids total caricature of the swinging 60s, particularly in an extended sequence where she attends a public showing of her own movie. Again, this shouldn’t work, as rather than come across as trite Hollywood indulgence, the scene becomes a beautiful example of the power of the medium to transport and the joy those who create it can feel about delivering it to the masses.
Tarantino has always been able to do whatever he wanted after shooting out of the gate with ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in 1992. With ‘Once Upon . . .’ he’s at once both his most indulgent and most giving. The film seems like his most personal one yet, truly delivering a representation of his inner fantasy of what the movies meant to him in the past and where he sees himself in the present. What’s amazing about it, and his true mastery of the form, has been his ability to take his audience on that same film-loving journey through the decades, through different genres seen through his truly unique lens, resulting in a movie that can only be described as a Tarantino fairy tale, right there in what turns out to be a surprisingly un-ironic title . . .
Written & Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Running Time: 161 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A