Movie Review: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Put Your Feet Up

Written by Jeremiah Greville August 09, 2019

A new Quentin Tarantino movie is always an event for film fans. But oh boy, is it ever daunting as a reviewer! There’s a lot of pressure to be super critical of the beloved and often controversial filmmaker, and it seems like every other reviewer out there is trying to prove their bono fides by taking him down. As if by doing so, they’re also retroactively tearing down all those Fight Club posters that used to hang in earnest on their dorm room walls. Honestly, though? They’re all just films, and this newest one by Tarantino happens to be a good one…about films. It’s all of Quentin’s classic self-indulgence and swagger, set to the end of the swingin’ sixties. So of course, he just has to go and throw Charles Manson into the mix to make things difficult…

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in 1969 and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, an aging former TV Western star whose career is on the decline in a changing entertainment landscape. He spends his free time with his best friend and former stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who also works as his handyman and driver. When actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) moves in next door to Dalton with her husband, famous director Roman Polanski, Dalton dreams of one day invigorating his career by working with them. However, a strange group of drifters led by a charismatic leader named Charlie has surfaced in Los Angeles, and may spell trouble for everyone. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

“It’s official buddy, I’m a has-been.”

If you know anything about the true history of the Manson family murders or Sharon Tate, then you know just what kind of subject matter Tarantino is playing with. I won’t spoil anything about where he ultimately goes with that subject matter, but I don’t consider it spoilers to admit that the Manson Family is in this film. They were in the trailer! However, while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood plays with real events, like Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, it remixes history and ultimately does what it wants with the facts. This is an entirely fictitious story that mixes real events and people with those imagined by Tarantino. The result is a fabulous testament to Old Hollywood and a genuine treat for film fans desperate for something different this summer.

Despite the subject matter alluded to above, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is really a chill-out buddy movie, probably the closest Tarantino has ever come to a stoner flick since his 1997 crime drama Jackie Brown (which, it should be mentioned, isn’t actually a stoner flick). While it’s got plenty of violence, drugs, and rock & roll, those things take a backseat to the central relationship between Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. Much of the run-time is spent with these two characters simply interacting or hanging out, and they’re a joy to watch on screen. It’s entirely safe to call Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a comedy-drama, or even a comedy (but not a ‘dramedy’! Never that!). This is, without a doubt, the funniest film Tarantino has ever made, and most of that is due to the two incredible leads.

“I heard you can be an actor.”

Pitt is effortlessly and supernaturally cool as the mysterious Booth, oozing easy-going charm out of every languid movement and self-satisfied grin. And DiCaprio is spellbinding, showcasing the the depths of Dalton’s insecurities opposite Booth’s calm charisma in a role few actors could make work as well. One of the most extraordinary moments in the film happens as Dalton acts out an entire scene of a TV show he’s shooting, eventually and repeatedly missing his lines. It’s incredible to watch DiCaprio play Dalton’s strengths and weaknesses as we see his character struggle through the end of the take in one final, long shot. Tarantino uses the scene to contrast Dalton’s failures with DiCaprio’s strengths, and when you realize what he’s doing, it becomes all the more impressive. People will be comparing Pitt and DiCaprio for years, but both are on their A-Game. This film rests on their shoulders, and they carry it well.

Unfortunately, Margot Robbie gets the short end of the stick, here. Sharon Tate was the victim of an extraordinarily awful crime, and Tarantino has never been known for subtlety or restraint. And yet, I can say that he treats Sharon Tate  — as a character and as a person — with as much respect as he can muster. But the end result is rather strange for Robbie, who ends up playing an idealized tribute rather than a fully-fleshed character. That distinction is made all the more jarring when, in a scene where Tate watches a screening of one of her films in a theatre, it’s Margot Robbie’s Tate joyfully watching the real Tate on screen. The intended effect is clear: Robbie and Tarantino are deliberately paying respect to the real-life woman. But Robbie is left behind. She’s all go-go boots and smiles and sexy dancing. Nothing more.

“The train has left the station.”

Tarantino’s vision of late-sixties Hollywood is one where the hippies don’t shave their pits but do shave their legs. It’s a strange combination of affectations and anachronisms that somehow successfully coalesce. Everything is a comment on, or a reference to, something else. Even the actresses that comprise the members of Charlie Manson’s ‘family’ are largely symbolic. Since in Tarantino’s world, they rebel against a society that idolizes and fetishes Hollywood, it makes sense that so many of the actresses are children of famous celebrities. Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell), Rumer Willis (daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis), Harley Quinn Smith (daughter of Kevin Smith), and Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) are all members, and both Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham appear as well, having also lived their formative years in the public eye.

However, this is also one of the clearest examples of the sorts of problems that can come with a Tarantino project like this. While the Manson family’s ‘Helter Skelter’ vision was somewhat inspired by pop-culture, it was largely fuelled by racial hatred and bigotry, not Hollywood dissatisfaction. It was explicitly against black people — of whom this film has almost none. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems to have a strangely regressive blind-spot. Something is lost in the translation Tarantino brings to the screen. Robbie’s Tate is a beatific cipher signifying nothing, and the camera lingers more on her legs than on her face. The Manson family are made up of Hollywood children, but their presence is just that — they’re there as set-dressing, nothing more. None of this is to imply that the film is bad, but simply to say that any complaints or qualms you may have heard — or may have — aren’t without merit.

“Fair enough.”

But the end result is still kind of astounding. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just a damn delight. It’s a long movie, clocking in a just under three hours, so you’ll want to get comfy and order the large popcorn to make it through. The ending will stay with you for quite some time after you leave, and even a week later you’ll still be thinking back on certain lines and moments that hit in the way only Tarantino’s writing can. Quentin Tarantino is the kind of filmmaker many film fans come to in adolescence then later regard with disdain or shame. It’s cool to hate his faux-edgy charm or find fault wherever possible. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows that it’s okay to like his work, warts and all. Sit back, put your (bare) feet up, and enjoy. Quentin certainly will.

My Rating: 8/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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