4 out of 5 stars.
In 1969, Hollywood was changing. The studio system was already long gone, television was at its height, and a new generation of filmmakers were emerging with a completely new way of telling stories on screen. This is the Hollywood that writer and director Quentin Tarantino grew up in, and this is the Hollywood that he portrays in his ninth film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” smashes together fact and fiction, taking place over a handful of days in 1969. The story revolves around fictional actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton rose to fame starring on a popular western TV series called “Bounty Law” in the late 50s through the early 60s, but since then he’s struggled with alcoholism and having a successful film career. Booth is having difficulties finding work as well; an incident on set with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and the lingering rumors that he killed his wife and got away with it have made him virtually unhirable. The lives of these fictional characters intersect with the lives of real people, most prominently Dalton’s neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who was famously murdered in 1969 by members of the Manson family.
As mentioned before, by the end of the 1960s, Hollywood was changing. The cynicism that permeated American life, in large part thanks to the Vietnam War, made its way into the movie business. Films and television shows became increasingly violent, something that is remarked upon early on in the movie by Al Pacino’s producer Marvin Schwarzs, and continues to be brought up throughout the film, with violence in the media becoming a major theme by the end. However, this is likely Tarantino’s least violent movie. He shows an incredible amount of restraint up until the final act, and while the comments about violence on screen teaching viewers how to be violent still lingers there, he certainly doesn’t do anything to condemn that notion. Meanwhile, Dalton is faced with either traveling to Italy to star in a series of spaghetti westerns—a genre he views as being rock bottom—or continuing to play the heavy in television pilots, and realizes that he is a has-been. His despair over his career ending contrasts nicely with the hope and joy embodied in Tate, who is just beginning her career, is newly married to director Roman Polanski (played by Rafal Zaweirucha), and has nothing but opportunity ahead of her.
Tarantino does a fantastic job recreating old Hollywood for this movie in a way that feels nothing but authentic. He takes us on a tour of Hollywood in the 1960s, from old theaters like the Cinerama and the Van Nuys Drive-In to the neon lights of the El Coyote Café to the crumbling Spahn Ranch, a dusty relic of an even older Hollywood. The scenes of Dalton acting on “Bounty Law” will resonate with those who grew up on old western series. Tarantino also carefully curated the film’s soundtrack so that no songs released after 1969 would be used in the movie.
His vision isn’t entirely clear, however. It isn’t until the film approaches its third act that it starts to feel like more than a series of amusing yet aimless anecdotes. The sequences that take their time to build up and contain little more than long stretches of dialogue aren’t anything new for Tarantino fans, but since we can’t really determine what the purpose of them is, the film’s pace slows down considerably more than it should for a movie clocking in at just under three hours. The direction of the story does eventually become apparent, however, and even contains many western elements in and of itself.
The progression of the story may be far from perfect, but it is boosted considerably by its perfect cast. Even when we’re unsure of exactly what we’re watching, it’s hard to care when the actors on screen are working at the top of their game, delivering sharp dialogue and completely melting into their characters. It seems like DiCaprio is almost continuously proving what he can do with every film he works on, and he ups the stakes once again here. His performance as Rick Dalton is both humorous and sad; watching him play Rick Dalton playing a character is a true masterclass. He works well with Pitt’s Booth, a tougher, more freewheeling figure who is more closely living the life of the cowboys Dalton plays on screen. His merits as a protagonist are sketchy (we don’t know whether or not he killed his wife, remember), but when placed side-by-side with some of history’s most infamous killers, we root for him anyway. Robbie is the spitting image of Tate, and while she’s great in every scene she’s in, she really isn’t in the film a whole lot, and when she is she gets very little dialogue. While the characters we get are fantastic, the lack of a more substantial female presence in the film is a drawback.
It is fun, however, to see who else pops up in the cast as the film progresses, as the ensemble includes many names who have worked with Tarantino before. The children of his friends portray most of the girls at Spahn Ranch, including Maya Hawke and Harley Quinn Smith, with Margaret Qualley being one of the film’s big stand-outs as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who catches Booth’s eye. Austin Butler does an outstanding job as well playing Tex, an integral member of the Manson family who can flip from menacing to hesitant just like that. Dakota Fanning appears briefly—and is mildly terrifying—as Manson member Squeaky. Kurt Russell plays stunt coordinator Randy and also serves as the film’s narrator, while frequent real-life stunt coordinator for Tarantino Zoë Bell plays one on screen as well. Damian Lewis, Luke Perry, and Timothy Olyphant play actors Steve McQueen, Wayne Maunder, and James Stacy. We even get Bruce Dern thrown in for a scene. It’s a large and talented ensemble, and they embody almost all aspects and classes of life in Hollywood at the time.
Tarantino has used his last few films to right the wrongs of history. With “Inglourious Basterds,” he presented an alternate version of Nazi Germany and World War II. In “Django Unchained,” he turns a former slave into an action hero, giving him the chance to have vengeance on his oppressors. In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino addresses the Manson family and the infamous Tate murders head-on, but puts his own spin on the event. The ending of the film may seem surprising, but it isn’t really when you consider Tarantino’s tendencies as a filmmaker. At the same time, his violent and humorous take on the happenings of August 9, 1969 are certainly divisive. It’s mildly appalling to see such a horrible event taken so lightly, in a way almost played for laughs. But it’s also deeply satisfying to see the bad guys get what they deserve, and then some. Tarantino is again rewriting history, giving the good guys a second chance and punishing the bad.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” isn’t Tarantino’s best work, but it’s up there. It’s an example of a mature filmmaker using all the skills and tools he’s acquired over the years to the best of his ability. The blend of music, cinematography, and actors delivering a solid script results in a series of scenes that are near-perfect, and create just the tone the director was aiming for in that moment, whether it’s tension (Booth entering Spahn Ranch is a particularly memorable sequence) or pure comedy. There may be times where the film has the viewer wondering what the point of all this is, but maybe—at the risk of sounding overly pretentious—that is at least partly the point. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is Tarantino’s love letter to the Hollywood he knows and adores, while also asking, “What if?”
Runtime: 161 minutes. Rated R.