Tarantino Delivers Both Bangs & Whimpers in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’

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

NOTE: This is a spoiler-free review.

Whatever you think of Tarantino’s work, you have to admit that the man is the most adept professional fanboy the film industry has ever seen. No one spreads the on-screen gospel of the bygone movie biz the way that man does — certainly no one with his style, at least.

If that’s why you see his films too — because you know it was lovingly made by a fellow rabid cinema fan — then you’re guaranteed to adore the way Once Upon a Time in Hollywood presents itself. Fair warning, though: If you’re expecting it to go as hard as Django and Basterds did, you’re going to see something a little different. A brash free-for-all is not what Hollywood was built to deliver.

The film follows famed TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double turned set-gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick has reached a much-feared point of no return in his career: Middle-aged, riddled with vices, and all but spat out by a ravenous entertainment industry, he wonders what the hell happened to him and what could possibly be next.

Simultaneously, we’re introduced to Rick’s carefree next-door neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), just as her professional and personal lives sweeten up nicely. The universe has given her the first truly positive reviews she’s received for a film role, a beautiful new house in the Hills, and a new marriage to widely-coveted director Roman Polanski. (Blogger’s Note: Yeah, this guy. What a waste.)

Sounds basic, but after leaving those starting blocks, the plotlines do what all good Tarantino plotlines do: Weave back and forth and sideways and parallel to show us every nook and cranny of how utterly insane and surreal and limitless and frightening the Hollywood of 1969 really was.

In fact, that’s what this movie does particularly well: making 60s Hollywood the other leading character. Every scene is soaked with Hollywood DNA — the jolly tones of LA station announcers, the blaring horns of rock radio, overzealous directors, scatter-brained and razor-tongued hitchhikers, the low angles of sunsets inside everyone’s car on the boulevard. It’s a population of people trying to find footing in the most artificial city on the planet during what’s arguably the most chaotic cultural year on record, and you can smell the desperation.

Speaking of characters trying to find their footing, Margot Robbie’s version of Tate is lovely. She’s the embodiment of every idealistic actress who came to LA to “make it,” and I wish she’d had more screen time. Pitt gives a perfectly balanced performance — he remains understated, good-humored, and delivers some priceless moments of whoop-ass with the lift of a finger. He is the quiet MVP of this movie.

Even so, this is 100% DiCaprio’s show. I don’t know how, but he made Rick Dalton both hysterically funny and soberingly relatable at the same time. Acting in a shtick-y Tarantino film is challenging enough, but viewers underestimate how hard it is to play the part of an actor who not only acts in several parts onscreen, but also spends the whole film questioning his relevance in an industry that’s nearly leaving him behind. It’s layered, it’s meta, and it’s very behind-the-curtain. To control and deliver those levels of performance is a major feat.

This movie is a lengthy 2 hours and 41 minutes, and a lot of it is spent seeing Dalton’s struggles as an actor... A revolving door of script rehearsals and watching his own re-runs and self-pity drinking binges and take after take after (“Line!”) take would never have worked here unless we had an actor of DiCaprio’s caliber straddling that fence. Audiences are already invested in him as a star, and when the movie ended, I was dying to keep watching him as Dalton.

True crime aficionados/Murderinos, I’m speaking to you now: If you’re like me, you saw early footage of Hollywood that featured Sharon Tate and Spahn Ranch and Charlie Manson and absolutely lost it. “Oh my god, we’re getting Tarantino’s version of the Manson Family murders.” I refuse to spoil anything, but I’ll recommend that true crime fans remember that even though the night of the murders is framed as a major set piece here, that event isn’t what the film is about. (Cryptic enough? Enjoy!)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels noticeably different from [Tarantino’s] past work. It exists smack in the middle of a craving for escapism and a comfort in nostalgia…

The only piece of Hollywood I had an issue with was the ending. I’ll say two things about it: A.) I’m still a little confused as to how and why it exists the way it does; I have theories, but I can’t discuss them here without spoiling stuff. B.) The pace of it was strange. This movie spent so much time building up the narratives, and then it brought down the ending in what felt like a nanosecond. I wanted a more balanced pay-off.

Nevertheless, I had a blast watching it. I hope it doesn’t end up being Tarantino’s last. I can already tell that this one may not scratch the pop culture itch his past films have. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious mish-mash of entertainment — comedy, historical context, Americana, incredible direction, a killer soundtrack, plenty of fan-friendly Easter eggs, and badassery in spades.

But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels noticeably different from his past work. It exists smack in the middle of a craving for escapism and a comfort in nostalgia — two things we’re all expressing a sharp need for right now. It seems like Tarantino is too: Hollywood is downright reflective, which is something I never thought I’d say about one of his films.

Pop culture fiend. Art + design enthusiast. Self-proclaimed expert playlist maker. Perpetual word nerd and advice dispenser. Five cents, please.

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