Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

As a kid growing up in suburban Ohio, I’m an absolute sucker for wistful, nostalgic Hollywood fantasies, and Tarantino delivers that good good. As a rememberance of days gone by, it’s stylish, deftly crafted, and handsomely shot. But, as a meditation on fading careers and the Hollywood life, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood really shines.

Casting two actors who have long achieved icon status certainly doesn’t hurt the film as it meanders on. And, what a meander. I could watch a whole film’s worth of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt bantering back and forth. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are incredibly realized characters, thanks to Leo, anxious and desperately searching for self-motivation, and Brad, effortlessly cool and just mysterious enough. They were always the only choices for these characters; it’s a good thing QT cast them. Their chemistry is perfection, a joyful brotherhood made much more interesting as we realize these two might actually need each other.

I’m glad this film isn’t just the central pair moseying around LA, because the constant cameos and bit parts provide near ceaseless delights. With each new face, Tarantino certainly comes across a little...well Tarantinoesque (“Look at who else I got to be in this movie!”), especially as some characters may have a mere two or three minutes of screentime (Rumer Willis is on screen for about...45 seconds?). That said, each new character to stop by for just a scene or two gives the film a propulsive energy.

It helps that there’s so many enjoyable sequences. A tense stand-off between a mulish Cliff Booth and a member of the Manson family is significantly more memorable due to a snarling turn by Dakota Fanning, almost unrecognizable with red hair and no makeup. Perhaps the funniest scene in the film finds Rick bothering his 8 year old co-star (Julia Butters), who has an astonishing blend of worldly wisdom and youthful tenderness. Mike Moh is having a hell of a lot of fun waxing poetic as Bruce Lee.

The key side performance is undoubtedly Margo Robbie as Sharon Tate. In a pivotal scene, Robbie—so skillful at playing sincere—as Sharon celebrates her first big role with a clandestine visit to a theater showing her movie; beaming and giggling at every laugh from the sparse audience, she nearly explodes off the screen in rapturous joy. With a sense of boundless optimism, Sharon is everything Rick and Cliff aren’t. 

She’s a wonderful foil, particularly regarding the ending. The final scene has been divisive, as QT yet again stretches out his hands, cracks his neck, and revises history. But, I think Sharon Tate is so prominently featured to help us understand why QT yet again plays with alternate history (as well as why he doesn’t cast himself in this film). Here’s my reading—

Cliff is Tarantino Past. Rick is Tarantino Present. Sharon is Cinema.