ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD REVIEW

This ode to late ’60s LA unfolds in an intriguing and humorous fashion. Brilliantly acted, with a kaleidoscopic plot, this movie falls under the realm of a fictionalized non-fiction – a good one.

Almost like sketches strung together, Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood shows vignettes of life behind the scenes, the backlot of LA in the time of the rising hippie. The splicing between stories, timelines, and the quick cuts harken back to a vintage Tarantino, coming closest to Pulp Fiction than any other Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction.

The flexible plot primarily follows Rick Dalton and Clint Booth as they navigate through the post high-point curve of their career. Rick is a TV cowboy with acting chops and an alcohol problem. Clint is his stuntman, deemed “too pretty to do stunts” by a fictionalized Bruce Lee. Brash personality and pretty face – something Brad Pitt pulls off wonderfully.

Plenty of things were detailed. Many real actors and character actors were portrayed in the movie, including the likes of TV stars, Steve McQueen and most importantly, Sharon Tate. Though the movie is more focused on her acting rather than her real life murder we all know about. We get to see sweet moments of Sharon Tate, her at home intimately snoring in bed or at the movie theaters where she convinces the clerk to let her in the movie since she was in it. And then, relishing in the public’s reactions to her scenes.

She is played by Margot Robbie, who plays her well, with a mix of innocence and free spirited-ness. Though she has little screen time, every scene she’s in is engaging and well developed.


SUSPENSE

The looming presence of Charles Manson and the Manson family creates a tense atmosphere. Our knowledge about the murder plays out with lingering suspense and this movie toys with that. This eerie feeling is enhanced through the music and the cinematography, making for some uneasy, voyeuristic scenes. An example is the scene where Rick is rehearsing his lines in his backyard pool and the camera pulls back, looking from above as if peeking over his gate.

Then there’s the intensity of some shots, like the scene at Spahn ranch. The music is beautifully heavy and the camera pans back and forth between Clint Booth and the growing number of hippies staring him down- as the audience starts to realize the hippies make up the Manson family. You think something bad is gonna happen and the aura of hedonism and destruction is in the air.

That being said, Tarantino knows we anticipate the murder, and toys with our emotions. He milks the suspense with no release. His toying with the suspense of the real and the fictionalized seems like something he is having fun with. But that is not the only thing Tarantino has fun with in this film.


BEHIND THE SCENES

Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood seems to be a vehicle for Tarantino to live out his fantasy of being a director in the Silver Age of Hollywood and also TV, and more precisely, Westerns. Tarantino had fun meticulously recreating scenes or inventing movies or even injecting Leo in some old reels. Cigarette ads included! (at the end), where we pull back the curtain and see Rick Dalton not liking what he’s endorsing.

Often times, there would be a “mise en abyme” or show within a movie which would play out as if the camera was used for both. There’s quite a funny scene where Rick Dalton plays a “heavy” (code for villain) and forgets his lines. His breaking is done in such an earnest way and self loathing way; after he tearfully declares that he “messed up the whole thing” and exclaims “Can’t we just cut?”, he snaps right back into character. In moments like these, you feel endearment towards the character, but also feel the immense quality of Leo’s acting.

“It’s official old buddy, I’m a has been.” – Rick Dalton

Leo Dicaprio plays a TV actor who’s down on his luck and worried about his future in the industry. More often we see women depicted as struggling with getting older and not so much men. In movies it seems that men need to feel relevant (or useful), and this is no different. In this tale, Rick is more affected by his irrelevance and proceeds to drink while rehearsing lines and beats himself up about it when he can’t remember it the following day. His descent is fueled by insecurity and alcoholism – which often go hand in hand.

But a case could be made that Cliff Booth is also the hero. Who exactly is the hero of this narrative? Hard to tell. We get a comparable amount of screen time for both Rick and Cliff and we see them equally in their personal lives, at home preparing food or drinks, on set or in danger. It’s hard to measure because the script gives space to DiCaprio and Pitt to show off their charisma as both Rick and Cliff.

Rick and Cliff are not likable people but compelling characters, therefore making them likable in the process. Audiences like flaws and get most involved when they see a protagonist grapple and struggle through life. In that sense, Rick seems to fit the profile of the flawed hero more as Booth tends to be more easy going and doesn’t mind not being in the metaphorical driver’s seat.


SWEET MOMENTS

Since it’s a Quentin Tarantino film, there was SOME violence but surprisingly, not that much. Unlike most of the Tarantino canon, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood actually has a lot of genuinely sweet and sincere moments.

In particular, there was a scene where Rick Dalton and a genius little girl strike up a friendly conversation on set. While he is on the down slope of his career, she is just learning the craft, but seemingly self-sufficient (she already knows a lot and stands up for herself.) When these two characters act in a scene together in the following scene, Rick does an improv in character which leads her to telling him: “that was the best acting I’ve ever scene”. Rick thanks her and then cries. It’s quite a sweet moment and more intimate than you would expect from this director.

There were also many funny moments where Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt could flex their comedic chops. The highlight is a scene where Pitt’s character, Cliff, is tripping on acid when intruders barge into Rick’s living room and encounter Cliff. Cliff doesn’t know what’s real and laughs off the reality. “Are you real?” “As real as a donut” the intruder (Tex from the Manson family) retorts. Then, Tex pulls a gun to his head, so Cliff – all the while laughing – pulls a finger gun on Tex and the dangerous vibes the intruder is trying to set is undercut by Cliff not taking him seriously. This unique and absurd scene is only one of the many larger than life sequences in this movie.

An extremely detailed and tantalizing portrait of 1960s hedonism in Hollywood. Funny, sincere and suspenseful – ⭐⭐⭐⭐