In case you didn’t already know, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino. Set in 1969, it follows the adventures of a has-been actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). There’s not much more to say about the plot, because there isn’t one. Tarantino is more concerned with evoking feelings about a time, and for much of the film he is largely successful. You could say there is a film within in a film in the script, and that one does have a loosely organized plot. It involves actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafael Zawienucha) moving in next door.
You’ll find a lot of the same elements you’d expect from any Tarantino film: a great soundtrack, meticulous art direction, some cool rides and lots of insightful banter. For about two hours, this is a mostly fun, often funny and occasionally touching reflection on the highs and lows of acting. Much has been written already about how the script handles Sharon Tate. For his part, I don’t think Tarantino has ever been more respectful of a real person in any of his films. It’s true, Robbie should get a little more screen time and a lot more dialogue, but her scenes leave an impression. Most films dealing with her focus on Sharon Tate the murder victim, not who she was before one awful night in August 1969.
In the film’s best sequence, Tarantino juxtaposes Dalton’s lowest moments as an actor with Tate’s happiest. She watches herself onscreen and can hardy contain her excitement and pride. It’s not the most rewarding part, and one some established performers may scoff at, but Tate sees it as the beginning of a bright future. We know that future was taken from her, so Tarantino doesn’t need to show it. Unfortunately, that puts him in a box in terms of how to end this thing, and the film stops working whenever the attention turns to the Manson cult. In the film’s last 30-40 minutes, it jumps forward to the night the murders actually happened. We get another bloody bit of revisionist history that Tarantino has become known for. It served Inglorious Basterds well. It doesn’t work here. Tarantino could have easily found ways to end this film before that night, and the justification he provides during the falling action for re-imagining the mayhem is weak.
Fortunately, the first two hours provide plenty of enjoyable scenes and delightful buddy humor between Dalton and Booth. Pitt does a fine job here, but DiCaprio gives the better performance. It’s one of his best. My favorite scenes involve Dalton’s interactions with a child performer and future acting heavyweight (Julia Butters) on a western backlot. There is also an amusing scene where Damien Lewis portrays Steve McQueen. The entire film also looks and sounds relentlessly like the 1960s. We are immersed in film clips, advertisements, music and lighting that puts us right there. Don’t walk out before the end credits are over. You don’t want to miss a bit where Dalton records a cigarette ad.
In making a film about Hollywood in 1969, Tarantino has unfortunately embraced, in an uncritical way, some of the shortcomings of the industry and the era. One of the reasons Booth is a less enjoyable character for me is that it is strongly suggested he murdered his wife, and this is always treated as a punchline. Later on, this bit of history is made to seem like a quality, not a flaw, in that it makes it very easy for him to casually (and brutally) dispose of several women from the Manson cult. Tarantino truly seems to enjoy depicting violence against women as joke. He also makes the unusual choice to mock Bruce Lee and have Booth beat the crap out of him in one scene that is supposed to be hilarious but I just found dumb. I can’t blame Tarantino for being infatuated with the cars, the music, the style and the films of the late 60s. But his embrace occasionally extends a little too eagerly and longingly to a time when white males ran the show; in the film industry and in the household.
Even when it doesn’t work, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is too interesting to ignore or to call boring. Like Tarantino’s other films, it’s gorgeous, nostalgic, brutal, funny, frustrating and sometimes misguided. While I have an issue with how much Tarantino seems to pine for the old days of Hollywood while downplaying its flaws, I also understand exactly why he made this movie at this moment. He is Rick Dalton. While an upcoming Tarantino film still causes a lot of excitement, he’s no longer the fresh voice or perspective in the industry. He is starting to do some of the same things in every film. This one offers a few new tricks, but how long until he runs out of new ideas? Maybe he already has, judging by how often he suggests his retirement is imminent.
By the end of the year, films from a generation of younger, more diverse voices will probably be drawing just as much, if not more, awards buzz than this one. I appreciate his craftsmanship and his contribution, but the work the newest generation of filmmakers are turning in is equally impressive and worth celebrating. Maybe that’s why I liked the scenes between DiCaprio and Butters the most. They suggest that, deep down at least, Tarantino knows those young voices are worth celebrating.