Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

The 1960s was a gas. Dig it man, the movies were far out. You'd have to be a square if you can't dig Batman or Easy Rider. Hey man, you see Steve McQueen in Bullit? That was out of sight! You catch Clint Eastwood in those Italian westerns? Oh man, you hear about what happened to Sharon Tate? You know, the chick from Valley of the Dolls? No, the other chick. No, not Patty Duke, the other one! Well, it's such a drag, man. Like, total bummer. The end of a decade and an era. Hollywood in the 1960s is said to have died when the Manson Family murders happened. Sharon Tate was one of the unfortunate victims, along with four others in the Polanski residence. The ripple effect morphed the Hollywood scene, pushing it to the hard edge we associate with the 70s and beyond.

Now imagine a version of Hollywood untainted by the shadow of Charles Manson. This is the world Quentin Tarantino invites you to in his ninth feature film (the two Kill Bills counting as one film). It's a colorful, sunbathed fairy tale where the ladies are always grooving to catchy rock records. Everybody cruises around L.A. uninhibited by excess traffic jams, and they're all decked out in style as they jam to the radio and listen to occasional film ads on the way to the drive-in. It's a nostalgic, idyllic world where the cast and crew of famous movies are just regular people doing their jobs. Problem is, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a has-been struggling for recognition and reputation after a successful career on an old western show. On the set of a neo-western, he's typecast once again as a villain (and seemingly outclassed by a dedicated eight-year-old actor), and he confronts his own personal demons in the wake of seeming failure. He might have a shot if only he can connect to his next door neighbors: Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Rick's trusty long-time companion, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) dutifully drives Rick around and runs his errands. By chance, he runs across a hippie girl and finds his way to Spahn Ranch, where he suspects something is amiss. Inevitably, these narratives entwine during one fateful night on Cielo Drive. But things might not go quite as badly as history originally unfolded.

Digesting this film has been an odd treat and an odd challenge. Clocking in at a little less than three hours, the film takes its bloody time to meander on characters and their mundane activities in vignettes that feel like they have little point. When the film ended, I had to suppress an urge to jump up and exclaim "is that all?" And yet, looking back on the whole thing I really can't pinpoint any scene or narrative thread that couldn't be excused. Cliff's backstory unresolved? Nah, it's better that it's ambiguous. Charles Manson barely even appears? Not really a problem, given that he's probably more menacing off-screen, leaving his creepy family to carry the scenes in the movie. Useless scenes showing Tate, Polanski, and even Steve McQueen? Well, they draw very slight connections that tie up the story in the final shot, where it seems as though Rick finally gets the chance he craves. All the long driving scenes, or scenes of people listening to records? I guess they could have been trimmed, but they're so groovy to watch for some reason.

That's the strange power of this film--I could have watched five hours of Rick acting, Cliff driving, and everybody else doing generic 60s nonsense, and it would have still been a blast. If nothing else, the film looks sumptuous with its steady, colorful photography, snappy editing, and punchy soundscape. Performances from the whole cast is supremely uncanny--it's especially noteworthy that DiCaprio plays a dude playing other dudes, while Pitt balances savagery and civility with admirable swagger. It is also extremely uncanny to behold Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen (holy crap, his mouth looks spot-on!), among others. The film shines with quality and style, making every ordinary thing extraordinary, just as it should be in Hollywood itself.

This might be the ultimate film about films. It even finds time to wedge DiCaprio in scenes from The Great Escape, in addition to aping old-fashioned westerns, war films, kung-fu, and perhaps horror. When I first saw news of the film, I would have sworn this would be best fitting as a Rob Zombie picture, but Tarantino surprisingly captures a similar vibe when he showcases the Spahn Ranch. Contrasting with the vibrant, lively 60s culture, the film underscores a certain duality in Hollywood. There's a difference between movies and the sets they're made on, the actors and their roles (supported by stuntmen nonetheless), and ultimately there's a line drawn between those who create violent media and those consuming it. By the finale, the film tears down all pretenses in a viscous, brutal slaughter that's very hard to watch. I suspect there's a message buried here, which may be timely in an age when folks are giving serious thought about censoring violent media.

Judging the story can be tricky, since the denouement is very abrupt and the middle acts are long. I do admire the slow, methodical crafting of it--like a good book, the film carefully shows you all its detail that builds up the characters, their goals and conflicts, before drawing them towards the shocking conclusion. If you're a film fan who knows about the era and its people, then you might find it interesting. Of course, if you're a Tarantino fan then the film is a must-see. Otherwise, given the length, the pace, and narrative quirks, I find it hard to recommend this casually.


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