Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood is a grab bag of various film styles and scenes which wildly careens from hilarious to heartfelt to dragging to chatty to menacing. So basically, it’s a quintessential Tarantino movie. It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story that is mostly breezy until a completely insane jaw–dropper of an ending that deliberately and gleefully upends what the story is building towards. Like all of Tarantino’s movies, it certainly is unique.
In the late ’60s in Hollywood, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor whose career is in a rut. After a few good supporting roles in big pictures and a solid run on TV, he has been randomly playing bad guys on TV shows to pay the bills. His buddy, driver, assistant and stuntman, Cliff (Brad Pitt), happily goes along for the ride while Rick alternates between a boozy depression, dizzying highs and terrifying lows. Rick lives down the street from famed director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and while he hopes to get Polanski’s attention for a film role Rick is also mulling a move to Italy to work on Spaghetti Westerns. One day while a very hungover Rick is working on a TV show, Cliff picks up a hippie hitchhiker Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who brings Cliff to her “family” of hippies, gushing about “Charlie”. But Cliff has a bad feeling about this Manson Family and things inevitably between all groups seem drawn by fate to messily collide.
The plot of the movie really doesn’t get started until the third act, which is about over two hours in. The movie is a pretty long 2 hours and 40 minutes but it’s zippy because a significant chunk is just random asides and funny bits about movies. Tarantino has always put his movie influences into his films but this is his first film that is directly about moviemaking which allows Tarantino to do different little shorts from Rick Dalton’s career. There’s a scene Rick blasting Nazis with a flamethrower in a movie, leading to a great random interjection of Rick learning how to use the flamethrower and complaining that it’s too hot. When Rick gets a guest spot on the show FBI, him and Cliff crack some beers and comment about how badass Rick is. There’s even weirder stuff like a clip from his stint as a singer which is hilariously terrible.
The most in–depth bit is Rick doing a guest spot on a Western TV show after a night of heavy drinking. He was completely prepared the night before but after boozing he starts flubbing lines. There’s him getting to know his tiny, wise beyond her years co–star and breaking down. There’s him on the set of the show which basically turns into a long extended Western show down that is shattered by Rick blowing his lines and going crazy. The climax of the scene is Rick’s baddie going completely bonkers and it is a blast to see DiCaprio cut loose.
While Rick is ping–ponging between emotional extremes, his stuntman is completely chill. Pitt is perfectly deployed in the film as almost every line he has is laconically understated and amusing. He’s great for random throwaway lines in situations, sort of like a callback to Pitt’s stoner character in True Romance. Also there’s a fantastic scene where Cliff on the set of Green Hornet can’t stand Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh) boasts which leads to an awesome confrontation. A running theory from people who know Cliff is that he may have been involved in foul play with his wife and the script plays it nebulous what the answer is; the biggest clue is a flashback scene of him and his wife that can be read a lot of ways. There’s the jarring element when Cliff comes face to face with the Manson family followers because he’s been a likable goof and suddenly it becomes serious. What starts off as flirty with Pussycat ratchets up the tension as Qualley has a perfectly weird quality that sells how potentially deadly the Manson Family can be.
Robbie’s Tate is a heartbreaking character because she seems so full of light and the knowledge of what happened to Tate hangs over every scene. There’s a slow but nice scene that works as a tribute to her potential when Tate sees her movie The Wrecking Crew with an audience that shows how delightful she was. The way the Manson Family is interjected into a Hollywood farce gives a sense of weight and when it comes together at the end, the result is totally nuts. Not many filmmakers would go down the path Tarantino does but that makes it so unexpectedly riveting.
With a cavalcade of guest stars peppered throughout Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood gets a lot of millage out of its long running time. The film lingers on small details like the juxtaposition between the nights of Rick, Cliff and Tate which makes when their stories intertwine that much more powerful. This is a love letter to a bygone era of Hollywood about a guy trying to get by without fame. It lets Tarantino stretch his considerable film skill as it becomes a different movie every few minutes leading up to the unforgettable finale. V
ONCE UPON A TIME IN...
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio,
Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie