Courtesy of Sony
Quentin Tarantino is one of the few filmmakers who can get an audacious and original adult targeted flick like “Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood” made. And here, in his 9th film no less (the director claims that after 10 films he’s retiring) Tarantino knows his own gimmicks and troupes to the point that characters in “Hollywood” mine as well stop and wink at the camera.
This is the filmmaker’s love letter to a lost generation of vintage American B-movies and TV, spaghetti Westerns, martial arts, hip music and an endless array of historical liberties. Though, you’ll want to leave your fact checker at the door, because even though real people exist in this world (from Steve McQueen to Joe Sebring) - like “Inglorious Bastards” did for Hitler, “Hollywood” does with the Manson murders.
But what’s a Tarantino film without some spark of controversy?
Clearly he’s having a blast in the film, and the lore and memorabilia that fill his frames will no doubt appease to a certain demographic of moviegoers who will be with the filmmaker every step of the way, even if the nearly three hour investment which precedes the standard, usually, graphic finale, seems plotess.
The central crux to all this lies between two characters - played here by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt who seem loose in the best way - and their slow fade from the spotlight. DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an aging actor on the popular cheesy western “Bounty Law” who is facing an existential crisis about his career, and/or his willingness to adapt to the landscape. Then there’s his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (played with the same gritty slyness from “Bastards” by Pitt) is more so Dalton’s liaison than he is a stuntman for hire, driving the actor around everywhere on account of his recent spat with some costly DUI’s.
The year is 1969, and with the input of his terrific creative unit, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, Tarantino is able to fold his buddy-comedy repertoire into a celebration of the glossy and vintage ‘60s Hollywood. Infused with radiant and pulpy color by cinematographer Robbie Richardson, the film is stuffed and primed with countless references to the glory days, including endless billboards, movie theater marquees, old-fashioned commercials blasting through the radio, and one cult that grew to unimaginable heights. This is a memory play, and the director’s inclusion of these iconic tinseltown monuments should spark a wave of nostalgia amongst older moviegoers.
We are also offered a glimpse into the glamorous lifestyle of Cielo Drive’s finest: Rick’s neighbors, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) whose close geographical proximity serves as a reminder for Rick’s stalling movie career. Sure he’s getting guest turns on hit TV shows like “Lancer” opposite star power like James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant - wonderful) and Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry - in his final on screen role) but he’s stuck playing the barely recognizable bad guy covered head to toe in prosthetic hair and makeup, and receiving quality advice from an eight year old method actor Julia Butters (terrific) that provides hilarious context to the different generations of performance style.
Eventually, Rick detours from his stints on classy westerns to headlining a slew of crummy Italian B movie knockoffs (“Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said The Gringo”) orchestrated by Al Pacino playing a schmaltzy agent who is obsessed with Rick’s filmography (which includes - among others - a glorious nod to Tarantino’s own work).
Cliff, on the other hand, is stuck in a bit of a rut. There’s rumors swirling in the industry that he killed his wife, and he has an inspiring fist fight with Bruce Lee (a welcome performance from Mike Moh) on the set of “The Green Hornet” but he can’t hold down jobs long, and is even told to get lost by a rival stunt coordinator played by Kurt Russell (a nod to “Death Proof”) in one of the films many star cameos. At the end of the day, Cliff resides more as an outsider, evading the law and catching the eye of a gorgeous broad in a crochet halter top and denim cut offs who goes by Pussycat (Margaret Qualley in a sexually captivating performance).
Pussycat resides on the old Spahn Movie Ranch with a slew of her hippie brethren and since we know Tarantino purposely set this during the era of the Manson murders, one can assume these are his followers. And though I won’t spoil the twisty time altering spin on the horrific tragedy, let’s just say folks might find beef with the way the director takes certain liberties with history, though I will say it’s the best sequence in the film. Offering up that signature style of Tarantino dialogue that’s so smooth it harks back to “Pulp Fiction.” That said, if you had problems with the way a prominent female character was tossed around in “The Hateful Eight” - “Hollywood” will spark more debate about treatment of women.
Speaking of which, Margot Robbie who tackles the real-life Sharon Tate in a role she was born to play, is given very little to do in a film that allots her minimal screen time in comparison to her male co-stars. She has one good scene, and that’s when she decides to take in a local matinee of Dean Martin’s “The Wrecking Crew” where she plays the comic relief and basks in the audience enjoying her ditsy turn. The camera stays honed in on Robbie for the entire duration and she’s as gorgeous as ever.
Then again that’s Tarantino for you, he says a lot and meanders without flinching. He’s always been a slow pressure cooker of a filmmaker, and instead of creating a cohesive picture, he chops them up into small vignettes that equate into a larger picture (and he shoddily incorporates various voice-overs that come and go and don’t offer much). Instead, the film zig-zags through the trials and tribulations of the Cliff-Rick dynasty, touching on both Hollywood history and events that are purely fictional.
Yet the self-indulgent bromance is what eventually smooths the picture over - and one adorable dog - and Tarantino’s recreation of the magic of Hollywood 50 years ago. DiCaprio and Pitt both give touching performances while Robbie manages to snag a few winning smiles. “Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood” isn’t the most disciplined on the director's filmography, and it suffers from a few lingering shots that overstay their welcome.
At the end of the day, this has all the best and worst elements of a Tarantino picture and when you’re watching it compared to his other works, you can feel the difference between what’s a good Tarantino film and a great one.