2019 Film Essays

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Is a Sun-Soaked Fairy Tale with Unexpected Heart

[Retro Music Collection Infomercial Voice] Have you ever wanted to kick back and cruise the streets of late-60s L.A. to the sounds of Neil Diamond and Simon & Garfunkel? Quentin Tarantino certainly has, and he’s realized that dream in his ninth movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film is a breezy drive through Hollywood’s waning Golden Age, a fairy tale where stuntmen and cultists intermingle — and where silly things like plot are left by the wayside. The film can be meandering at times, but it’s slice-of-life structure allows for more time, and more pondering, with its characters. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is like any Tarantino movie in that it’s chock-full of fuzzy pop songs, ridiculous violence and references, references, references — but considering the deeper themes it explores and the emotions it conjures, it’s also one of the director’s more thoughtful pictures.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood concerns the lives of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is a has-been. He had made a name for himself as star of the 50s western television series Bounty Law, but his career is in a downswing, and after a talking-to from his agent, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), he worries that he’s no longer relevant. Should he go to Rome and make awful Spaghetti Westerns or risk fading into obscurity? Cliff, on the other hand, is a never-was. His stunt gigs have dried up due to an unsubstantiated rumor that he killed his wife and got away with it, so he ekes out as living as Rick’s gofer — fixing his TV antenna, driving him to sets, being his daily cheerleader. Somewhat on the periphery is Cliff’s new neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the actress and wife of Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski. Her appearance in the film sets a sort of ticking clock, as it’s well-known that the real-life Tate was murdered by the Manson family. 

What unites these characters is a deep, deep longing for relevance. As Tarantino did in Jackie Brown, he steps beyond the confines of hip world-building and gritty crime tropes to address the evergreen themes of aging and obsolescence. There’s an unexpected maturity and sweetness to this film, a hopefulness. What it lacks in crazy fight scenes (well, there’s one at the climax that’s INSANE) and non-linear plot craziness, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood makes up for in character. Rick, Cliff and Sharon are all lost people seeking out meaning. They all want to be somebody, but Rick’s playing crummy roles, Cliff can’t even get a role, and Sharon goes to her own movies to hear audiences cheering for her. There’s a great scene in which Rick recounts the plot of a Western novel he’s reading; the main character, “Easy” Breezy, basically mirrors his own status as an aging has-been. Realizing this, he starts to cry in front of his eight-year-old co-star, and it’s got to be one of the most heartfelt, sweetest scenes in Tarantino’s filmography. 

For all of its grounded-ness and contemplation, however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also wildly funny. DiCaprio wisely doesn’t play Dalton with a wink; he’s not in on the joke, and it’s all for the better. He’s a pitiful character, and the film plays off this. After a weak performance on the set of the show Lancer, he freaks out in his trailer and promises to stop drinking, which is followed by a jump cut to him picking up a flask. Pitt gets his fair share of funny scenes, too. An extended, and seemingly pointless, scene where he fights on set with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) results in one of the best punchlines of the movie.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nothing without its characters, and DiCaprio and Pitt elevate the film; it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Rick and Cliff. Tarantino heralds a time when movie stars were MOVIE STARS, and he performances make a great case for why some people put guys like them up on a totem — they ooze charisma. Pitt is effortlessly funny in one scene and effortlessly badass in the next. It’s a real treat. It’s just a shame that Robbie gets the short shrift, spending most of the time dancing to music and giddily smiling. 

But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t devoid of Tarantino’s trademark suspense and violence. An eeriness pervades the picture as the Manson family slowly inch their way into the film. When Cliff picks up a hitchhiker and brings her back to the dusty, desolate Spahn’s Movie Ranch, where the Manson family is stationed, he encounters a gaggle of brainwashed, unwashed girls, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is suddenly a horror movie. There’s not too many of these tense scenes, nor much violence to be had, but the film delivers in the climax in what may be one of the goriest, most batshit insane scenes in all of Tarantino’s oeuvre. 

From a technical standpoint, there’s not a lot to unpack with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino stalwart Robert Richardson returns as cinematographer, but more attention is paid to capturing period-accurate TV shows and commercials than in doing anything really visually innovative. That’s not a ding against Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, per se. It looks and feels right, and there’s really no need for distracting outside-the-box imagery in what is really a laidback movie. 

The music, however, shines. Call it Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s fourth-biggest star. Tarantino has always included retro tunes in his films, but this time he gets to present them as present-day, top 10 hits. Characters cruise around to the sounds of Paul Revere & the Raiders, Deep Purple and The Village Callers, like a 60s throwback version of Grand Theft Auto. It all helps to give the film a timeless, fairy tale-like quality. This is the Hollywood that Tarantino has always referenced and hinted at in his movies, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revels in it. Who wouldn’t want to drive the sunny streets of Hollywood blasting out these songs? 

Tarantino has never been known for sticking to the Hollywood formula — in fact, he’s built his career in doing just the opposite — but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably his least cohesive, most loosely structured movie. There’s really not a lot going on in terms of plot, even when compared with his other unconventional narratives. I mean, there’s a scene of Cliff cooking Kraft mac and cheese. It takes a while to lift off, and the overextended, expository narration from Kurt Russell and Tarantino’s exhaustive obsession with movie trivia doesn’t help. But the characters and tone go a long way in making up for all that. This is a party movie, a vibe. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not groundbreaking Tarantino, but it’s a fun trip back through time with real heart and likeable characters. Allow yourself to sink into its world and you’ll be rewarded with good tunes, laugh-out-loud jokes and moments of exhilaration. And that bonkers/heartfelt climax is definitely worth the wait. 

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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