Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

For a while now, I have found Quentin Tarantino to be one of the most dynamic and yet simultaneously frustrating filmmakers working today. Dynamic because he tells stories with such passion, directs with such panache, and makes immensely entertaining movies filled with wit, intelligence, charismatic characters and endless movie references (some would say rip-offs) for fellow film geeks. What I find frustrating, though, is the fact that all that talent and enthusiasm is always in the service of shallow, empty narratives with virtually no depth or substance. Tarantino's films are primarily surface: all flash and sensation. No real meat, no ideas to chew on (outside of whatever ethical questions he's courting through his usual controversies like extremely brutal violence, liberal use of the N-word or troubling abuse of female characters... the last of which is certainly not going to be quelled by this movie).

His pictures are immensely enjoyable to watch (repeatedly) and dripping with style. This was more than enough for me when I was a twenty-year-old in college first discovering a whole new world of film, but over the years, as I've become more discerning/sophisticated in my tastes and more demanding of my cinema, I've found Tarantino's work, while still hugely entertaining, regrettably superficial. I grew up, but his movies didn't. A Tarantino joint never really says anything -- outside of "Isn't this cool?" -- and when Tarantino did finally attempt to say something through his art (with his three most recent "historical" movies) it was incredibly trite and simplistic. Tarantino has an essentially adolescent worldview and his movies betray that. They may be very "adult," in terms of content, but they are not very "mature." I have long felt that if Quentin were to finally "grow up," he might realize his full potential and produce something truly great.

Well, having just seen his latest opus Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood, I can report that Tarantino still hasn't grown up... but something very interesting has happened. He has grown old.

Quentin Tarantino is not a young man anymore. Now in his mid-fifties, he has achieved a level of success, celebrity and adulation afforded to very few filmmakers. He has said many times that he plans to retire after 10 films (referring to this one as his 9th... counting the two Kill Bills as one apparently) because he doesn't want to become sad or pathetic trying to hold on to something long after it should have been let go, a theme that is central to this particular work. Thus, while his films typically just reveal Tarantino the film geek, OUATIH actually reveals Tarantino the man far more than any film he has made yet. He is much less reliant on his usual bag of tricks (his usual quick-zooms, for example, are never seen here -- except in the "movies within the movie" -- and he doesn't use his signature "trunk shot" even when there is an opportunity for one). His filmmaking is uncharacteristically restrained and subtle. Despite how beautiful and joyous the film is, there is an elegiac tone to it that is new for Tarantino. He has always looked back in his films, always romanticized older formats, songs, genres, etc. Every Tarantino film is infused with nostalgia, but OUATIH is the first one to carry with it a tinge of melancholy, a yearning, a longing to return to a time and place that he has known mostly through TV and motion pictures... and which, in fact, never really existed at all.

The time and place is Los Angeles in 1969 and the level of detail here is stunning (if this movie doesn't win the Oscar for art design, I'll pull a Werner Herzog and eat my shoe), achieved presumably without any CGI. Tarantino recreates this era of Hollywood beautifully, right down to gorgeous posters for both real and imagined movies in the background. It is incredibly authentic (or at least it feels that way; I don't know from personal experience as I was born in '76) as are his simulations of old TV shows and B-movies... all of which star an actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Dalton isn't a "has-been" so much as a "never-was:" a handsome but aging leading man-type who never quite got the big break he needed to become the A-list movie star he always wanted to be. He was the lead in a successful western program called Bounty Law, but now is being forced to play walk-on villain roles in someone else's show. At his side is his friend, driver and former stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who gets even less work than Rick but seems a lot more content with his lot in life.

The movie primarily focuses on Rick and Cliff over the course of several days that prove to be seminal in their lives. This has been referred to as a "hang-out" movie and that's because it doesn't really have a plot. There is a sort of story but it mostly just follows these two men as they struggle with their impending irrelevance in their changing world. There is a laid-back, leisurely quality to all of their scenes that is very intoxicating (although, it does, on occasion only, cross over into being lethargic). The dialogue has the usual Tarantino-eqsue polish but is sharper and less indulgent than it has been lately. Tarantino started his career writing memorable dialogue that just crackled with wit and intelligence. Who can forget the "Royale with cheese" or "I don't tip" exchanges? Somewhere along the way, though, he seemed to become enamored with the sound of his own "voice" and his dialogue became unwieldy, redundant, tedious and forgettable (particularly in Death Proof and Hateful 8). The dialogue here is something else entirely: it is smart without being smug, it is concise without being taciturn, it is interesting and yet still believable. It's the best dialogue Quentin has written in a long time.

There may not be a plot, but there is, however, a ticking clock in the form of the film's third major player, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). While Rick and Cliff are fictional creations (though inspired by real Hollywood figures), Rick's new neighbors on Cielo Dr. are the very real Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife Tate. The film frequently cuts from Rick and Cliff's storyline to the Polanskis living the high life and the audience's knowledge of the real-life brutal murder of Tate, her unborn child and several friends of hers at the hands of the Manson "family" lends these scenes an uneasy, haunting quality that only grows more ominous and suspenseful as the movie goes on. We even catch glimpses of Manson himself and his gang of girls throughout the film, always on the margins, never really brought center-stage until the third act.

The movie builds to a climax that is... well, it's a lot of things, most of which I can't discuss without dropping huge spoilers, so I'll say as little as possible. It is, not surprisingly given this is a Tarantino film, very violent and it threatens to undo the very delicate spell that the rest of the film manages to cast (whether it actually does or not will no doubt prove divisive for audiences). It is shocking, it is arguably in bad taste and it is a bit out of character from the film as a whole. And yet, at the same time, I will admit that it does seem like a fitting conclusion to a movie that is about the end of a very specific era of entertainment (one that it affectionately looked on by its director as a time of more Innocence) and the beginning of a new uncertain one. The film's final shot is a very telling one indeed.

While I still have some issues with it, Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood is possibly Quentin Tarantino's best film. For me, it's definitely his most cohesive work since the tragic loss of his friend/editor Sally Menke (whose absence is still felt even now as the film, like QT's other recent movies, it a bit too long... although it's almost understandable this time as Tarantino clearly just wants to spend as much time in this world as he can), but what I think is undeniable is that it is by far his most personal film yet. Yes, we get his usual obsessions and fetishes (still with the gratuitous shots of bare feet), but we also get some of his hopes, dreams, desires and, I think, regrets. Just as Spielberg's Ready Player One (one of my favorite films of last year) showed a director dealing with the complicated legacy of own creations, OUATIH is Tarantino facing into the inevitability of his own time passing. It is him (finally) allowing himself to be present in his work as more than just the "god" pulling the strings on everything and everyone else. This is Quentin Tarantino at his most vulnerable.

He may have gotten the name of this film from Sergio Leone epics like Once Upon a Time in the West or Once Upon a Time in America, but I think this movie is, in a sense, more like Tarantino's own Wild Bunch, a eulogy to a bygone era that never was, a fairy tale that mythologizes a land of princesses, knights and dragons. One felt the sadness in Peckinpah's meditation on the vanishing West and its code of honor... and one can sense the wistfulness in every frame of Tarantino's love letter to the city of Angels in the last gasp of the studio system, a place where dreams were made before the place itself turned into a waking nightmare.

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