Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

A film that understands the power of the subjective truth. 

What initially seems like another fawning paean to moving images and old music slowly reveals itself to be Tarantino’s most earnest and vulnerable work since Jackie Brown, an exploration of aging and coming to terms with one’s own mediocrity, the aching reality of failure. It’s pervaded by a melancholic air, and yet in its absurd final scenes a glimmer of hope emerges. 

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are two of Tarantino’s most tragic figures: Rick a once-popular, one-hopeful actor struggling to reconcile with his inevitable and ineluctable slide into irrelevancy, in between his apogee and his nadir; and Cliff the loyal, indefatigable best friend and stunt man-slash-handyman. Cliff drives Rick around, fixes up his house, listens to Rick’s woebegone ruminations. It’s a really beautiful depiction of male friendship and loyalty. (Also, when did Brad Pitt—who has one of American cinema’s great comedic faces, that incredibly handsome mug contorting into looks that say the unutterable—get so many wrinkles?)

Tarantino’s visual style remains eloquent, but has never been so unostentatious, so restrained; this is his first movie unconcerned with its own claim to greatness. Those long drifting crane shots that shift the perspective, floating over houses as people walk languidly below, reminded me of the stream of conscious prose passages in Gaddis’s J R. (I bet no one else makes that comparison.)

Cliff’s demeanor on acid during the outlandish ending—his insouciance, his gleefully irrelevant attitude, almost blissful in his inability to understand the reality of the situation (or perhaps we just cant understand his reality?), grinning idiotically—is perfect. Pitt plays the whole scene with a knowing shrug, a kind of inebriated Zen; it’s as if Cliff has, during this fantastical display of manliness, had a sudden Joycean epiphany (unless he knew this all along) that he matters, and is now at peace. 

Is this the most gentle and comfortable Pacino has been on screen in a decade? 

For a “hang out movie”—leisurely paced, languid yet logorrheic, suffused with a loose (which is not to say lazy) vibe, not so different from Everybody Wants Some!! or even American Graffiti—this is a carefully, punctiliously structured narrative, one which harks back not only to Hollywood’s past but to itself, treating the history of a tragedy with the same irreverent, impressionistic freedom it does the history of Hollywood. The ridiculous reemergence of the flame-thrower only earns howls and speaks to the sadness of Rick because we know what it means to Rick, the role it plays in his life, first shown in what might initially seem like a frivolous, fun indulgence that film-within-the-film about the Nazi killer. Also, did anyone else think (perhaps shamefully) of Brad Pitt’s appearance on Friends? when someone says to Pitt’s character, “Oh, come on, Will, just take off your shirt and tell us”? 

Once Upon a Time… is about the self-created mythos of mediocrities, two men who are afraid to slip into oblivion. In the end, Rick and Cliff don’t see much of a future for themselves, so they make one up.

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