Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This particular moviegoing experience was unique in the anticipation that I had for it. I couldn’t properly discuss it after a first viewing because of that. With the anticipation came the expectation of what a Tarantino movie was going to be. Not all that surprisingly, after the first viewing, I felt confused, overwhelmed, and in denial about the fact that I was a bit let down. I knew I experienced strong emotional connections throughout the film, but it felt like more of a collection of moments that didn’t congeal into a whole. The climax felt under established and anticlimactic - the last thing one would expect from this filmmaker. In the days that followed the viewing I rode a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from love to hate. After enough time had passed, I landed on a very sentimental feeling and a genuine fondness for the movie. I knew that going into future viewings, I would be experiencing a comedy that packs a poignant punch led by incredible  performances. 

Unsurprisingly, the second time was infinitely better. Right from the get-go, the scene with Pacino that didn’t really click with me the first time through felt important and entertaining. From there - pure enjoyment spending time with the characters. Other than a brief lag around the midpoint that I felt the first time as well, the runtime was a non factor. This is a movie about friendship, and damn does it do it well. 

Every single performance here is on point. From Leo down to Rumer Willis, everything works. It is so fun to see Leo playing a completely different kind of character. So insecure, so comedic in his earnestness - this will go down as an all-time performance for him. Brad is something else. He’s always entertaining and funny when he is supposed to be. This surely establishes him as the ultimate cool man of a generation. More on Margot Robbie shortly.

About the ending: it worked for me the second time around, and I couldn’t be happier. The first time through, I grappled with the thought of whether or not the Manson Family should’ve been more established as an antagonistic force. While I think the story could’ve benefited from a little more exposition on that end, I decided to align myself with team “Know Major American History Events”. Does the film have the same effect if you don’t know about the murders? Of course not. It was not the filmmaker’s job, nor his intention to make a historic biopic. What is so interesting about the play on history here is how it differs from Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained. The climax is not built on pure, cathartic revenge. It does not solely revolve around giving a mass of evil its due. The cathartic violence is there, but the reasons for it are not built into the story. It’s the kind of revenge that never was. It gives victims of a senseless crime a chance to live on. While the anger behind the story is palpable and vicious in QT’s other works, this one feels to have been written through tears - and with love. There’s a reason why the name “Manson” was never spoken and the family scarcely shown - they don’t deserve it. This is a deliberate middle finger to the cult and an end to their glorification. If the horrific violence that occurred IN REAL LIFE is not enough to justify the less gruesome, campy violence at the climax of this film, you live in a fantasy world larger than any movie could ever portray. 

Margot Robbie is phenomenal. A second viewing made that incredibly clear. A few things have frustrated me about the largely lazy criticisms made about her character. First and foremost: this is not a Sharon Tate biopic. One of those came out this year (starring Hillary Duff). I haven’t seen it, but I’d put all of my money on it being offensive and glorifying the Manson Family. That’s not the big one though. The big criticism is the most baseless and ironic. To be clear, I am not aiming to defend QT. He’s a celebrity director who has been on top of the industry for almost 30 years amidst many a controversy. No, I’m standing up for Margot Robbie. To say that her character’s lack of lines is offensive to her as an actor, and Sharon Tate as a person, is not to attack QT, but Robbie’s artistry. To say that she is just there as a pretty face is to project your attractions onto her and onto the character. It is to say that any Instagram model could’ve been thrown into the role and excelled. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m shocked at how many are overlooking this. The film crumbles without the beautiful light of her character. The scene in the Bruin brought tears to my eyes in both viewings - and not because Margot Robbie is a beautiful woman. The relatability and humanity of those moments are absolutely gut wrenching. And it doesn’t matter if you know the outcome of the story - because we all know the tragic outcome in real life. What better way to honor Sharon Tate. (If you don’t agree, check out a VF article with her sister attached below.)

This will never be my favorite Tarantino film. I’m well aware of the problems - both structural and social - at hand. Yes, I do wish that there had been a differentiation made amongst the protagonists between the Manson Family and hippies. While there is a lot of love shown for the movement throughout the film, it could’ve been made more clear that there was nothing positive about the pieces of scum in the cult. They did not bring peace or positive change - just despair. I also recognize the issues with the Bruce Lee scene. While I view Tate’s sister’s comments as credible support, I give Lee’s daughter and protégé the same respect. I think whatever reverence there was for Lee in the script got lost along the way. That being said, that scene can be and still is fun to watch, and it certainly doesn’t ruin the film as a whole. 

This will always be fun to visit, and will only get better with age. It’s a small scale, hangout movie that displays a kind of heart that none of QT’s other films have. It finds a way to create nostalgia for a time 30 years before my own and a genuine melancholy about what could’ve and should’ve been.


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