Quentin Tarantino said he’d like to make only 10 movies. Well, we’re on his ninth and if he really is ready to wrap up his career — possibly with a Star Trek movie — that’s unfortunate because he hasn’t lost his edge one bit.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood tells the tale of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two aging veterans of Westerns whose careers are in transition at the most notorious time in Hollywood history — 1969. They are middle-aged, their bread-and-butter genre is dying out, and they struggle to stay relevant while hoping the work doesn’t dry up too quickly.
And Tinsel Town’s in the shadow of the Hippie movement and that up-to-no-good Manson family on the cusp of doing that bad deed they are known for. But Sharon Tate isn’t the focus of the script and her tragic murder is not recreated. Margot Robbie, as marquee a name as she is now, spends most of her time grooving to classic rock and watching Tate movies in a darkened theater, where she doesn’t get recognized.
No, the real locus is the friendship between Rick and Cliff and the experiences in Once are lived almost exclusively through their eyes — substituting for real people when it might be easier to see things from the perspective of Tate, Roman Polanski, or one of Manson’s followers.
As a pair, Pitt and DiCaprio strike a fine balance. They both struggle to adapt but Cliff plays it cool when Rick is harder on himself as an actor than anyone else would be. He’s the conscience that keeps Rick going and taking work where he otherwise wouldn’t.
A Dog’s Purpose
DiCaprio isn’t the only one Pitt has chemistry with. A dog named Brandy that serves as Cliff’s faithful and obedient companion is the show-stealer that has everyone talking. Brandy is such a major part of the movie, actually, she gets her own poster. Their bond is played for levity and works well in the film’s really light moments.
And to say there are light moments is an understatement. The same can be said for liberties taken. If you’re expecting a period thriller told straight, you’ll be disappointed. It’s Tarantino so historical accuracy, much the same as Inglourious Basterds, falls by the wayside.
Once Upon a Time bears his revisionist fanfiction version of events punctuated by his usual artifice in shenanigans. Random flashbacks, coupled with smart-alecky narration, give the viewer context while losing track of where we are in the story for a few minutes. Jumps back and forth in time create a nonlinear narrative, but not one as intense as Pulp Fiction. He stays in one timeframe long enough to keep things consistent enough to follow.
The cinematic universe concept is something Tarantino is devoted to — also one he is among the first to try. All his movies are connected and steps are taken to remind us: keep a sharp eye out for allusions to other films, dots to connect, and wait until the credits for a Red Apple cigarettes ad. You serious Tarantino aficionados will.
Simple connective tissue is the least of it. Though it’s always had the potential, film as an art form, thanks to postmodernism, can intrigue and engage without corresponding to real life as a verbatim historical record. Quentin Tarantino knows that. His world has its own alternative history and plays by its own rules. Hitler can die burning in a movie theater, but that’s okay; that’s part and parcel of the flair of a Tarantino movie. Your intelligence isn’t insulted because his cinema is meant to be a metatextual dialogue with reality that plays like a long issue of What If rather than a documentary.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes full advantage of its nearly three-hour runtime. Quentin Tarantino takes a trip back in time and does what he did with Inglourious — turn a sad point in history into a wild ride and gives it a bloody, oddly satisfying, ending. Be prepared, by the way, for the requisite over-the-top violence.
- Great cast with a myriad of surprising cameos. Nicholas Hammond (yes, him) shows up to turn in an unexpected performance.
- Amusing deliberate editing mistakes.
- Fast pace.
- Margot Robbie may be heavily advertised but her role as smaller than you think. While she looks good in just about every scene she's in, she is underutilized.
- Some stand out among the Manson followers. The rest are flunkies.
- Celebrity impersonations walk a line between authentic and send-up.