Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

If you really love Quentin Tarantino in general, I can't see how you wouldn't love this. It's a great showcase for his strengths as a director, and it deals with the kinds of things he's most passionate about: Hollywood mythology, masculinity, and (eventually) gruesome violence. Me, I've only seen three movies he directed and two others he wrote, and I think he's obviously a very talented filmmaker but his writing leaves me cold at least half the time—like, individual bits can be funny and even moving, but when he has to choose between thinking more about things like story or character and things like achieving a particular stylistic effect or paying homage to a movie he likes, he's likely to go with the latter. This movie is like that. I don't mean that it's totally style over substance; there's more to it than any of his other stuff I've seen, and in a story like this sometimes style counts as substance anyway because of what it's about. It has good ideas, but they're all over the place and I'm not sure which ones he was actually interested in.

The best idea, which at first seems like it'll be the whole story, is the relationship between TV-western icon Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It originally looks like they're old friends who love each other and always want to work together, and that's sort of true, but we see pretty soon that these guys exist in two very different worlds: Rick may not be a leading man any more, but he's a wealthy star and people indulge his fuckups; Cliff is his all-purpose personal assistant and chauffeur, and lives in a trailer. And while Rick talks about the future a lot and shares all of his many insecurities, Cliff has a live-in-the-moment approach and a kind of confidence that makes him feel like a working-class hero—except the movie keeps dropping hints that he might be more like a small-time career criminal who's never been caught. He has a lot of violence in his past (including one big rumor that the movie plays very coy about, like Tarantino knows that if we ever got to see the rest of that flashback then we might not be able to keep enjoying Cliff's charm) and an instinct for how to read people and play people, which comes out in the movie's strongest extended scene, a trip to Spahn Ranch where Cliff meets some of the Manson Family and seems to instantly recognize their kind of damage and danger. The tricky balance between this dark stuff and the satirical scenes of Hollywood business nonsense reminded me of a writer I would've never associated with Tarantino before: Robert Stone. Stone's novels Children of Light and Dog Soldiers are about, respectively, damaged people trying to be real artists in a silly business, and naïve small-time crooks discovering all the kinds of horror and madness California has to offer, and Rick and Cliff could totally be Stone characters from some combination of those books. DiCaprio and Pitt are very, very good in these roles; they manage to suggest depth to the characters that's only hinted at in the script, but I have to give Tarantino credit for that too—he's good with actors.

The other main throughline is an attempt to get at what "Hollywood" means. Does it just mean being involved in making movies? There's some really well-done stuff about how these professionals do their jobs, and what the resulting entertainment looks like through their eyes as opposed to the general public's point of view. But then we also spend a fair chunk of time just looking at celebrities at a party at the Playboy Mansion, and Tarantino is doing his best to recreate the same kind of gossipy glamour that you'd get in the press (at one point he literally name-drops by putting captions on screen to say who's who, a device that has nothing to do with anything and that he soon forgets about; later, for no particular reason, we start getting voiceover narration that's mostly in the style of entertainment reporting). The movie briefly flirts with the idea that these people have a lot of power over the culture at large and maybe that's not so great—one of Manson's cultists says people like Rick are fascists who fill our imaginations with murder, and one of Rick's fans likes his stuff because of "all the killing"—but that's mostly ignored too until the very end.

The very end is where, if you're hoping the movie will sum up its themes or provide a dramatic conclusion that says something real about these characters, you may have some issues. All the violence inherent in Rick's movie/TV roles and Cliff's real life and Manson's delusions bursts out in an extremely strange scene that is by turns very funny and absurdly gory in an exploitation-film style and can be read in lots of ways, including 1. good old Hollywood tradition versus a gang of creeps who embody mainstream paranoia about hippies, 2. a literalization of Rick's desire for his masculine fantasy job to be actually good for something, 3. a statement that if only real-life violence worked more like movie violence then things might work out better, and 4. Tarantino just doing whatever the hell he feels like because it amuses him. While it's not un-fun if you can get into his teenage mindset for a few minutes, whatever connection it has to the previous two and a half hours is pretty theoretical and, in my opinion, is better supported by what Tarantino says in interviews than by the movie he actually made.

If you just take the film a scene at a time, it looks and sounds great and it's very involving and there's a lot of good work by the supporting actors too—my favorites were probably Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell as stunt coordinators, Julia Butters as a hyper-professional child actor, and Dakota Fanning as Lynette Fromme. Of the historical characters, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) suffer the worst from Tarantino's tendency to just throw iconography around and trust that we'll get what he's trying to say about it: Tate is filmed as if she's very central to the movie but has almost nothing to do or say, and Lee isn't as much of an offensive caricature as I had feared but is still basically a device to show how macho Cliff is (it doesn't help that in that scene, the characters lapse into the kind of bullshitting-about-celebrities dialogue that instantly makes this feel like the kind of Tarantino I don't like). In general, when there's a character or a plot point that you might wish would be followed through on somehow... just don't hold your breath. A shaggy story that has a lot of loose ends can be fine, but I have to wonder what a movie like this could've been like if Tarantino had a good co-writer—someone he trusted and who understood his preoccupations but was a different and more focused person, sort of the Cliff to his Rick.

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