Even when he includes real people in his stories, Quentin Tarantino does not make movies based on real life. He makes movies based on the feel of movies from the era he is exploring, merging reality into his fiction to create something that seems familiar, yet is brand new. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, about a fading Hollywood star and his stunt double, is exactly that kind of story. It throws these fictional creations in with real figures to construct a love letter to late 60s Hollywood. Like most of his filmography, it has clever dialogue, sharply defined characters and a clear eye for what it wants to be. It is also long and meandering, with an ending sure to divide audiences. It is not his best work, but it is fascinating and oddly mature. This may very well be his best directorial effort.
It is February 1969. Rick Dalton is the former star of a popular TV western, now reduced to guest appearances as a villain on other programs. Cliff Booth is his stunt double who mainly acts as his personal assistant. Both men are trying to keep their careers going. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski move in next door to Rick as the Manson family gathers at the Spahn Movie Ranch.
A lot will be said concerning the dialogue, the references, the homages and what Tarantino does (or does not) do with his narrative. But I would rather focus on two other aspects of the production: the visual style and the performances.
Generally, the look of his movies are nothing spectacular. He has gotten better at this lately (both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained have inspired moments). Still, talking has always been the centerpiece of his projects. Hollywood is probably his quietest picture so far. There is a whole bunch of observation and contemplation mixed in with the conversation. That allows him and his cinematographer, nine-time Oscar nominee Robert Richardson, the opportunity to tell the story partially with framing and camera movement. There are some beautiful shots of Rick lounging in his pool or Cliff driving. It is an idealized and carefully thought out ode to 60’s Hollywood, with a love of movies permeating every frame.
Whether it is Rick’s home, with posters of him on the walls, the sets he films on or the western setup of the Spahn Movie Ranch, with the Manson family ominously lining the street, this is a thank you to a time that shaped Tarantino’s, as well as a lot of peoples’, love of the cinema. It is hard to really go into detail about the feeling this approach produces; you have to experience it yourself. It is like a bittersweet memory.
For much of its 156 minute running time (minus the end credits), the tone is dramatic, with some character based humor. That changes in the last act, but the audience is able to follow it there due to the consistency of the personalities, which is helped tremendously by the three main performances.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a man who knows his career is on its downswing. He is not a prima-donna. DiCaprio plays him as someone dedicated to his profession. He wants to prove he still has it. DiCaprio’s strongest moments come on-set as he tries to demonstrate his value. It is not a showy performance, yet he is easily able to establish Rick’s passion, fear and talent.
The showier role goes to Brad Pitt as his best friend, charismatic stuntman Cliff Booth. It is not an easy part. He needs to be charming, arrogant and witty. Pitt makes it understandable that Rick would be so devoted to him while others strongly dislike him. It is an effective reminder of the cool persona that made Pitt a star in the first place. Cliff could have been a stereotype, but he shows a thoughtfulness underneath. The friendship between Rick and Cliff is as important to Hollywood as its use of location. It would not have been as successful without Pitt and DiCaprio.
The third major character is Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. There has already been a lot of controversy about the limited amount of dialogue she has been given. Instead of focusing on what is missing, I want to look at what Robbie does with what is present. Tarantino uses her to represent the hope of new Hollywood next to Rick’s declining reminder of old Hollywood. Robbie does not get a fully formed character, even if what she symbolizes is extremely important to what Tarantino is trying to say. However, she makes the most of it. She has to play everything (her enthusiasm, pleasure and apprehension) through body language and facial expressions. Her performance is so vulnerable and key to why this comes across so much as a love letter to that era.
While Rick is struggling to hang on to his dwindling stardom, Sharon seems delighted to be in the movies at all. Robbie has a smile on her face in nearly every scene she is in. There is a sequence where she goes to a theater to watch one of her movies with an audience. She shows such joy at seeing their reactions to her work. It could have been ridiculous, but she makes it intimate and endearing. Although good points have been made about the use of Sharon Tate here, I hope that does not detract from what Robbie was able to do.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. It is a personal reflection on what made him the filmmaker, and man, he has become. Despite containing many of his trademarks, the language is far less vulgar and the violence is limited to a couple of occasions (though it is intense when it does come). It is very flawed and brilliant at the same time. The narrative is sometimes distractingly unfocused and I am still not entirely sure how I feel about the conclusion, but this movie is alive in a way too few are these days. Tarantino can be a bit of a mixed bag. When he is on, he is as exciting and entertaining as any active writer/director. In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, he is mostly on.
4¼ out of 5
Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
Margaret Qualley as Pussycat
Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring
Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarzs
Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy
Kurt Russell as Randy
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino