Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★

More than a film set in Hollywood in 1969, Tarantino’s latest is a film about Hollywood in 1969, more specifically the ins and outs of Americana and the clash of cultures at a transformative time. Comprised of a series of very loosely connected vignettes that showcase the anxiety of the older generation and its resistance towards a new way of thinking, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood often veers into docu-drama territory. Made up TV episodes that might‘ve just been the real thing, radio jingles and commercials, iconic L.A. bars and restaurants, marquees and billboard ads, abandoned movie ranches, a large collection of period cars... all serve a purpose beyond narrative terms: telling history. 

Whilst scattered thoughts in a film like Pulp Fiction came with the fury (and coolness) of a thousand winds, here the operating word is nostalgia. There’s a coat of melancholia to everything that Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Pitt) do and say. Their world has been crumbling under their feet for a long time, but now, thanks to an encounter with a (doomsday) agent (Pacino), it feels real. And while Rick drinks whiskey sours and blames the hippies, Cliff’s just coasting by, a hippie at heart that in another life could’ve been Manson himself. He becomes, of course, our connection to /that/ side of history, however tenuous that might be. Ultimately, though, he’s very much the man Cliff pretends to be in his spaghetti westerns, the man with no name, the cool cat with a shady past who lives outside the norm. Turns out the stunt double has been the character his boss pretends to be for a living all along. Isn’t that quite the thought? The dynamic between the duo is immensely watchable and used to tackle subjects like ‘wasted potential,’ ‘co-dependency,’ and the desperate need to cling to a life raft in the form of “ahh, the good ol’ times.” This all comes to a head in the final thirty minutes, which function as a release valve to Rick and Cliff’s accumulated frustrations, a liberation from anger and fear. In many ways, it’s the spiritual cleanse they so desperately need, or, in Tarantino’s terms, the revisionist fable America wanted. 

As interesting and heartfelt as these themes might be, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood could prove a challenging first view for some. Scenes run long and without a traditional pay-off, and there’s a sense that the narrative takes elliptical contours. Everything is quite ethereal in tone, making the film something akin to a mood piece. It’s about how the players inhabit their world, and what the final year of the ‘60s feels like. While it’s fascinating to spend time with these characters, at 160 minutes Tarantino’s habitual brand of pastiche takes a turn for the mature, in the process becoming more interested in his characters’ inner-workings, and less in pop culture musings and outbursts of violence. It’s more literary, less bombastic. In that sense, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate and Margaret Qualley (of Leftovers fame) as Pussycat become saving graces, re-energizing the viewing with their magnetic presence. Throughout we also get a great Olyphant, a short but compelling final performance by Luke Perry, and a different look into a series of future starlets like Maya Hawke and Austin Butler. But talking about Hollywood is talking about stars. And in Once Upon a Time none shine brighter than the poster boys. Rick Dalton’s depressive stupor is impressively embodied by DiCaprio in a welcome departure from his usual roles, and a fascinating play on the actor’s own mythos. Here, we see him stuttering, drinking compulsively, being unable to find a creative groove. He’s insecure, meek, and desperate to please, yet somehow, still a force of nature. Brad Pitt plays his counterpart in almost every way, in a role that isn’t any less difficult. It requires gravitas without much words, but also tremendous comedic timing. And man oh man, does he deliver a performance for the ages? Whenever he’s not on screen, you think about what he’s doing at that moment, what he’s thinking about, and how long do you have to wait until you’re spending time with him again. It’s a performance only a true star could deliver.

In the end, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a richly textured, involving fairy tale with heart, a film that embodies what Cliff Booth is to Rick Dalton— “more than a brother but not quite a wife.” This is to say, more a revisionist historical record and less a quintessential Tarantino film. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just something a little different, a little less... Hollywood.

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