Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was without a doubt my most anticipated movie of the year (apart from maybe “Endgame”) and I definitely have to see it more than once to be really sure of my opinion. What I can say for now is that the film surprised me in many ways, that I enjoyed it very much, and that I can nevertheless understand why it could be quite the divisive movie.

In several ways, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” doesn´t feel like a typical Tarantino movie. The dialogs are not that flashy, there is not that much violence (until the end), and the plot is not that engaging. That is probably the major complaint many people have (and one I can understand at least to a certain degree). The film is very long, slow, episodic, and more slice of life than plot-driven. For most of the time you will probably think:” Ok, Quentin, what are you trying to tell me? Where is this all going? What´s the story?” Personally, while I also was surprised by this approach at first, I quickly came to appreciate it. The slice of life approach makes everything feel more real and life-like rather than like a fictional story. All in all, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the most immersive film I have seen this year. With every episode, I learned more about the characters and became more emotionally invested in them, and the payoff in the finale is huge. I think that is something everyone can agree on: The finale is absolutely perfect. The whole cinema went nuts.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a love letter to cinema in general and to the Hollywood of the 1960s in particular. How Tarantino recreates this time period is astounding and his attention to detail is phenomenal. Set design, costumes, cinematography, editing, and soundtrack are fantastic, and you can feel Tarantino´s knowledge of and passion for cinema in every shot of every scene. And this passion is contagious. For many people, the film probably drags at many parts, but I enjoyed every minute I spent in this world. As a cinephile, I am of course delighted by the many film references, cameos, and insights into acting and filmmaking. I am also once again impressed by Tarantino´s masterful direction. He has perfect control over every aspect of the film, but I am especially fascinated by how he can change the tone and atmosphere from scene to scene. Some scenes are goofy and silly, some are heartwarming, some are suspenseful as hell (Cliff´s visit to the Manson farm), and the finale is just batshit crazy. Only a director like Tarantino could make this work.

The highlights as well as heart and soul of the film are without a doubt the two protagonists Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. Tarantino has created many legendary characters, but those two are easily among my favorites. Top 10 for sure, maybe even higher. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt deliver one of the best performances of their respective careers. I always find it fascinating, when actors play actors in movies, and DiCaprio just perfectly captures the fragile psyche of an “has been” actor. Seeing him as the whiney, insecure, eccentric, and sometimes choleric Rick Dalton is damn entertaining, and several of his scenes, including his freak-out in his trailer or his interactions with the young girl, are just acting gold. Brad Pitt´s Cliff Booth is the perfect counterpart to Rick Dalton. Cliff is the coolest, calmest, and most laid-back guy imaginable. No matter what situation he is in, he always has a “I´m gonna be ok” vibe, and he is just very entertaining to watch, no matter what he does. Cliff is probably the coolest Tarantino character since Vincent and Jules from “Pulp Fiction”. But those two characters are not only fantastic on their own, their chemistry with each other is outstanding, too. They both have very different personalities and live very different lives (therefore providing different perspectives on the life in Hollywood), but their friendship feels real and is truly endearing, relatable, and entertaining. This friendship is the emotional core of the movie.

One negative side effect of the huge focus on Pitt and DiCaprio is that the rest of the stellar cast feels kind of wasted. I mean, seeing Margot Robbie´s beautiful face on the big screen makes every cinematic experience even greater, but I wished she had a bigger role and more lines. And everyone else is more like a guest appearance than a supporting role. But then again, Pitt and DiCaprio are so phenomenal that you don´t need someone else to carry the movie.

So, lets come to a conclusion. Many people will probably find “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” too slow, self-indulgent, pretentious, and kind of pointless, but if you share Tarantino´s love for cinema, enjoy fascinating characters, and have no problem with episodic, slice of life stories, you will have a great time with this film and will be sad, when it ends (at least I felt that way). They don´t make many films like this anymore and seeing one in the cinema always feels like a breath of fresh air. I also think that “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is one of those movies that could convert someone from being a casual moviegoer to a cinephile. Maybe some people will check out all the old movies Tarantino references in this film and get infected with the same passion for cinema. Maybe some of them even become directors on their own and keep Quentin´s spirit alive. If that is the case, Tarantino has probably achieved everything he wanted with this movie.

So, this are my first thoughts. Like I said, I have to see it again. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will probably not become one of my top 3 Tarantino movies (so far, this are “Inglorious Basterds”, “Kill Bill”, and “Pulp Fiction”), but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It could become one of my comfort films.

Edit: After a rewatch, I increased the rating to 4.5 stars.
Second review: letterboxd.com/thommy1801/film/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood/1/

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