Film Review: In “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” the Stars Align for a Mostly Favorable Outcome

Film poster: “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

A frothy pop-culture romp through cinematic history and fantasy, both, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood bides its narrative time over the course of its 161 minutes, building to a violent climax in the final act that is simultaneously shocking and entertaining. Given that this is a film by Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) – his ninth, in fact – the combination of those two elements should surprise no one. What is particularly satisfying, however, is how the director evokes the tropes of moviedom to comment on the evocative hope the medium instills in its fans. The real world is often filled with horror and despair, but Hollywood frequently offers a way out of the nightmare. Of course, Tinseltown’s delights are also habitually hollow, as is the case here, profound meditations rubbing elbows with superficial digressions. If one can take the bad with the good, however, then this fairytale delivers a rousing spectacle, whatever its flaws.

The time is 1969. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant) plays Rick Dalton, a fortysomething movie star on his way to has-been status, his cowboy TV show “Bounty Law” a rapidly receding hit of yesteryear. Palling around town with his long-serving stuntman Cliff Booth – played by a pitch-perfect, laconic Brad Pitt (By the Sea) – Dalton tries to drink his woes away, even as a new offer comes along, courtesy of a movie producer played by Al Pacino, to play in Spaghetti Westerns. Not keen on the idea, Dalton continues his ongoing guest spots as the heavy on episodic series with newer, younger stars. The clock is ticking, made even more apparent when Polish director Roman Polanski moves in next door with new wife Sharon Tate, an up-and-comer, herself. They have it good, it seems, while the maudlin violins are out for Dalton.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD ©Columbia Pictures

Anyone who knows the history of this era will be well aware that, actually, the bell is about to toll for Tate. Though Dalton and Booth be products of Tarantino’s imagination, Tate and Polanski are very real. On the night of August 8, 1969, Tate – 8½ months pregnant with Polanski’s child –was brutally murdered, along with four others, by members of the Charles Manson family. Tarantino emphasizes this tragic timeline with on-screen dates for each day, bringing us gradually closer to the fateful day. We know what’s coming … or so we think. But just as in his 2009 Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and the ending we expect ends up quite different from that which we get. Given the director’s love of esoterica, I am certain that there are many clues and Easter eggs that riff on the actual facts of the case, but one need not be an expert in the period to appreciate the craft on display, nor the central story, nor the thesis that movies can right all wrongs. Still, as brilliant as much of the mise-en-scène may be, there’s plenty of bloat – and some misfires, as well – to go around.

Cliff is the key to much of the action – as one would expect from a stuntman – connecting with the Manson gang early and, by his disruptive presence presence, altering the trajectory of destiny. Pitt is wonderful, but Tarantino gives his character an unfortunate backstory as a man who (possibly, probably) killed his wife – a detail played for humor – that, though it helps set up Cliff’s willingness to use violence, creates a more-than-sour note. There’s also a scene – completely tangential to the main plot – where Cliff humiliates a trash-talking Bruce Lee (a fine Mike Moh), which is both very funny and deeply insulting to the memory and struggles of the late, great martial-arts star. All of it does serve, however, to position Cliff as someone to reckon with, so when the finale arrives, we are prepared. Cliff also comes with a lovable and obedient sidekick in his pit bull Brandy, who not only plies him with kisses, but also attacks on command. They make a formidable pair.

Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD ©Columbia Pictures

The cast is vast and talented, though Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), as Tate, is given little to do beyond incarnate an idealized view of the actress. She’s all bubbly joy, her sweet naïveté in counterpoint to her awful death. Standouts from the rest include: the marvelous Sayuri, as Brandy; the equally charming Julia Butters, as Trudi, Dalton’s precocious child co-star for one of his guest spots; and Margaret Qualley, as Pussycat, a hitchhiker from the Mansons whom Cliff picks up one day, getting a little more than he bargained for. DiCaprio is solid as Dalton, delivering both pathos and silliness in the role of a man going downhill fast, but it’s really Pitt’s movie. Problematic though his role may be, he carries it off as best he can, delivering the punch – along with the beautiful cinematography, on actual film, by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) – that helps Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood make the most of its aspiring fable. 

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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