Written By: Daniel Kinsley
In a crowded summer full of sequels, reboots, and live-action remakes (most coming from your new overlord, Disney) a new film from Quentin Tarantino feels like that increasingly rare beast at the movies: an original story that feels like no less of an event for its lack of spandex and CGI. After the unabashed bleakness of The Hateful Eight (2015) Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) feels like a late-career pivot toward something softer and more reflective, while remaining no less rooted in the sort of loving details that have made the auteur’s filmography so singular. It is a fitting move for a filmmaker closer to the end of his career than to the beginning* and a welcome shift to a more bold and honest emotional perspective.
Set in 1969, in the days and months leading up to the real-life murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) Once Upon A Time is mostly a loosely plotted hang-out film that plays out like a love letter to the Hollywood of QT’s youth, sprinkled with a bit of revisionist history (a theme which has become something of a directorial trademark). At the heart of the story is Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) a washed-up television actor who’s best days are behind him. After the cancellation of his hit western series Bounty Law, Rick is relegated to playing the heavy against up-and-comers like James Stacey (Timothy Olyphant, channeling a 60s era Raylan Givens). More often than not, Rick is often accompanied by his stunt-double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) a man who spends much of his time acting as Rick’s driver and personal assistant thanks to a tarnished reputation and a stunted career.**
The bulk of the film takes place over the course of a few long days, made up largely of a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes. In and of itself, this languid approach to the pace is a bit of a departure from Tarantino’s work, which has often been littered with pop-culture digressions, but still tightly constructed. While the film lingers on the tension of Tate’s presence, it is threaded expertly throughout what is otherwise a very laid-back experience. As Rick plays yet another villain on the set of a new series called Lancer, Cliff stumbles across a young hippy named Pussycat (Margaret Qually) who lives on Spahn Ranch, an abandoned film lot now occupied by a group of Charles Manson followers. DiCaprio has had one hell of a career, but as Rick, he taps into a side of himself we have never seen before; Rick is plagued by alcohol-fueled insecurity, and spends much of his time feeling like a has-been. A meeting with producer Marvin Schwarzs (an all-too-brief Al Pacino) who suggests Rick become a spaghetti western star in Italy does little to dissuade his feelings. DiCaprio is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious as Rick flubs his way through one scene and transcends another, and he taps into both the uncertainty and the pathos with aplomb. If Cliff is the less showy character, then Pitt makes up for it with an effortless cool that almost distracts from just how good the performance is. While Cliff carries himself with an easy-going demeanor, there is something coiled and hard lurking beneath the surface, and it is a juxtaposition which plays equally effectively in some of the film’s tensest as well as its most fun moments, including the anxiety-inducing trip to the Manson ranch, as well as a sparring match with none other than Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) which left this writer giddy.
As has been reported, Margot Robbie (who seems to literally glow right off the screen) gives a mostly wordless performance as Tate. Tarantino has stated that he became very enamored by stories of Tate while conducting research, making it his goal to portray her as something more than just a victim, and it shows in the film’s treatment of her as a real person. Even without much dialogue, Robbie is a talented enough actress to give the role interior life. There is no better display of this than when Tate, on a whim, attends a screening of her (real-life) film The Wrecking Crew (1969) and savors the reactions of the audience. For much of the film, Tate is a warm, ethereal presence, given to moments of joy, and grace. Even in a mostly wordless performance, Robbie works wonders. Without spoiling anything about the events of the film, let it be said that those who feared the presence of Tate might be misappropriated need not have worried.
Though Tarantino has always excelled at creating an atmosphere that feels familiar, even if it is not entirely tethered to realism, the world-building in the film is incredible. The production went to great lengths to recreate many landmarks of old Hollywood, both famous and obscure; this obsessive attention to detail, coupled with era-appropriate touchstones, and a soundtrack to match all conspire to create a specific feeling that makes the film feel both immediately lived-in, and ripe for exploration. Of course, there are an incredible amount of familiar faces in cameo roles, from a nearly unrecognizable Dakota Fanning to brief, but welcome appearances by Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, and the late Luke Perry, as well as the aforementioned Mike Moh who plays a scary good Bruce Lee.
As a whole, it is QT’s most relaxed, meandering work since Jackie Brown (1997) a film which similarly relied on character work over Swiss-watch plot mechanics.*** It is also the funniest film Tarantino has ever made, due in large part to the wondrous chemistry and individual performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, two of our finest (and last) movie stars. While much of the film is surprisingly restrained, the climax (sure to be divisive among viewers) proves that the filmmaker may never resist his impulse to go big, though the brutality on display is (as usual) punctuated by a wildly effective streak of pitch-black humor. There will be much hand-wringing about whether the lack of concrete plot makes the film less effective (it doesn’t) and where the film sits in his oeuvre (for what it’s worth, probably closer to the top five than not) but it is the suspicion of this writer that the great joy of the film will be in revisiting it, as its lackadaisical approach will make for a great opportunity to revel in its many pleasures. Despite the nearly three-hour run-time, it is a film that breezes by and yet still feels like there is so much to explore. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood may not be the best Tarantino film, but it may very well be the one that reminds us most of the many joys of going to the movies.
* If he sticks to his word, Once Upon marks his 9th film, which means we have one more to go.
** Pun intended. Sorry not sorry.
*** Also famous for being an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, and the only QT film not also written by the man.