Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★

Inglourious Basterds was Quentin Tarantino's presentation of the dark side of the movie industry. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the other side of that, a specific period in time now fixed forever in the man's imagination and preserved for us. This is the most hopeful and optimistic of Tarantino's films, even as it documents people at the end of their useful lives. It's also Tarantino letting his love of movies completely off the chain, even more so than previous films, and it's an infectious joy. Good time for this to show up.

I'll make the case with anyone, anytime that Tarantino is in a conversation with Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson for greatest living American director. One of the qualities on display here for Tarantino that puts him there is his eye for actors. Like Scorsese before him, Tarantino has a great sense of Leonardo DiCaprio's comedic talent, and it's displayed well in an early scene where Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) has lunch with producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino). The way DiCaprio's face falls further and further as Pacino spells out for him the end stages of his career just cracked my ass up, presaging a great performance as a tough-customer Western star with a sensitive heart that's easily moved to tears. DiCaprio's got an old-school, almost screwball way that he arranges his face in comedies that I love watching every time, and Tarantino puts it to full effect here.

Brad Pitt is at his most essential Pitt-ness. He's always done best in roles that demand a lot of physicality, because his best trick is playing it cool while taking his shirt off or punching someone. Cliff Booth is a cool dude, and not in the obnoxious way either. So cool that most of us are pretty okay with the fact that he spear-gunned his wife about fifteen minutes after the fact is discussed. So cool that you watch him make Kraft dinner in a dusty trailer and go "I'd hang out with that guy." Because you're seeing a guy at his most perfected natural form, it's mesmerizing, and every time he's on the screen you're glad that he is. And it doesn't hurt that he gets two of the best scenes in the film; the tense encounter at the Spahn Movie Ranch, and the climactic, LSD-fuelled gonzo showdown.

I enjoyed Margot Robbie way more than I thought I would. I don't think much of her acting ability, and I still really don't, but she's deployed to full effect here. This universe's Sharon Tate is a delivery system for Tarantino's unironic, enthusiastic love of the movies. She's beautiful, strangely innocent, and there doesn't seem to be an ounce of mean in her at all. She likes little dark guys (*makes "call me" hand gesture*) and going to her own movies and just basking in the magic of a goofy Dean Martin paycheck. Tarantino saw that Robbie can radiate that weirdly beatific quality, and that's exactly what she did. I've seen a whole lot of people take issue with her role in this film, and I'm baffled by it. This is probably the purest expression of talent that she'll ever have, in a career littered with truly awful and miscast roles to date.

And it wouldn't be a Tarantino film without a parade of memorable secondary characters. Damian Lewis, who I never thought I'd see in one of these, is fantastic as Steve McQueen in a party scene at the Playboy Mansion, giving us the rundown on Sharon Tate and also enabling a hilarious bit of editing fun with DiCaprio auditioning for The Great Escape. Margaret Qualley has one of the most weirdly hot roles in recent memory. Dakota Fanning's interpretation of Squeaky Fromme is menacing while located entirely in an easy chair. Mike Moh's Bruce Lee impression killed me. And on and on and on. In every scene are people who are knocking it out of the park in ways that seem tailored to who they are as actors. A big, two and a half hour clinic in craft without ever once getting up its own ass. I'd be hard pressed to name anyone else who can do that. Even the dog's role is great.

There's a lot to unpack with this one, maybe more so than any other previous Tarantino film. More grist for future watches. I'll stay tuned for when they roll out promotional cans of Wolf's Tooth dog food.

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