Movie review: Tarantino’s got a winner with ‘Once Upon a Time’
After all these years, what should one expect from a Quentin Tarantino film? Well, a lengthy running time (This one clocks in at 161 minutes.), some dark comedy (Wait till you see an angry “Bruce Lee” go up against a calm and collected stuntman.), a bit of unrepentant violence (Check!), a list of songs to drive around to at high speed (“Hush,” “Good Thing,” “Treat Her Right,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” are here.), multiple storylines that don’t necessarily blend into one piece (Check, again!).
“Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” is at once Tarantino’s most accessible film since “Jackie Brown” (1997) and one that’s not really about what most people have been led to believe it’s about.
It’s accessible in that, even though there’s a lot going on, and there are brief, sometimes jarring flashbacks tossed in at odd moments, it’s all very easy to follow. It’s likely not what people are expecting - that being the story of the Charles Manson-Sharon Tate murders. Well, not exactly. Look at the title again. It begins with “Once Upon a Time.” This film may not be what comes to mind when the word fairytale pops up, but it could sure pass for a Tarantino fairytale. And yes, the characters of Charles Manson, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate do show up.
The film is set in 1969 Los Angeles. At its core is the story of the relationship between former Western TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The show they worked on together - “Bounty Law” - was a hit, but Rick was aiming higher, hoping for a movie career, and he walked away from the show, bringing Cliff with him. But that movie career never panned out, and now he’s relegated to doing guest shots as villains in established TV shows and pilots. Cliff, with a bad reputation about a nasty personal secret haunting him, is also having trouble getting any good work, beyond a position as Rick’s driver and gofer. But the two guys do their best to look out for each other.
Tarantino gets right down to surrounding them with other characters, some of them based in reality, some totally fictional. The third and only other major role is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who spends most of the film making her way around town, shimmering in a soft glow, basking in her fast-building stardom. Then there are the agents, the TV directors, the pampered actors, the hangers-on, the miscreants, and one really cool pit bull (Brandy won the Palm Dog at Cannes for best canine performance). Among the folks playing them are Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley and many others. But don’t blink; they’re all cameos.
But it’s mostly about Rick and Cliff together, as well as about Rick alone and Cliff alone. Rick comes to realize what a mess is life has become; Cliff seems to take his own bad times all in stride.
Tarantino’s script - for once not too talky - keeps looking around at the people and circumstances surrounding them. Polanski, Tate and third wheel Jay Sebring move in to the mansion next to Rick’s mansion. Cliff, driving around in Rick’s Cadillac, picks up a hitchhiker - a cute hippie girl who invites him to visit the Spahn Movie Ranch, where she and her friends (and Charles Manson) are staying.
And Tarantino sprinkles the film with pieces of the times. Tate stops by a cinema that’s playing her newest film, “The Wrecking Crew,” a drive-in theater has the double feature of “Lady in Cement” and “Pretty Poison,” LSD has become popular - at least cigarettes dipped in the stuff. Tarantino also shows off his filmmaking prowess, not only with the ever-unfolding story, but with his direction of actors (Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie are equally terrific) and with the combination of camera placement and movement. He also achieves (with the assistance of cinematographer Robert Richardson) a completely separate stylistic look in a TV pilot sequence that’s both darker and richer in texture than anything else in the film.
It leads up to a version of events that happened in August 1969, at which point all Tarantino hell breaks loose. But the film always remains a celebration or an ode to the world in which he has made his career. Also, for those keeping track, Brad Pitt removes his shirt at the 45-minute mark.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and lots of cameos