Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

Some have argued that the Manson murders brought an end to Hollywood's golden age, replacing the carefree spirit of the 60s with fear and cynicism. Tarantino seems acutely aware of this in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, as he wistfully reminisces about the decade he was born into and the films that would one day inspire him. If Inglorious Basterds played out like a Jewish fantasy, Once Upon a Time is a similar piece of revisionist history that plays out like a Hollywood fantasy, serving as a love letter to 1960s Hollywood. Taking place in 1969 in the months leading up to the infamous Manson murders, Once Upon a Time revolves around Rick Dalton, a TV star in the twilight of his career, and his stunt double Cliff Booth, a war veteran who lives in his trailer with his dog Brandy next to a drive-in theater. When Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate move in next door to Rick, the actor decides to make an attempt to save his dying career.

Once Upon a Time is filled with characters that are struggling to redefine themselves and thrive in an industry that is dynamically changing. Dalton, based on Burt Reynolds, has typically been typecast as the "heavy" in a TV western called Bounty Law, and fears his career is doomed unless he gets the chance to play an action hero. Booth, struggling to find work after he allegedly killed his wife and got away with it, doesn't seem near as concerned with the fate of his career as Dalton is. Tate is also eagerly trying to make a name for herself, all the while indulging in the Hollywood party scene. Each at different points in their career, their responses range from acquiescence to cynicism to youthful optimism (wonderfully embodied by Robbie). One can't help but see the equanimity of an experienced filmmaker like Tarantino reflected in Booth, who has surrendered to the fact that one generation is giving way to another, and that stardom and fame are fleeting.

For being nearly a three hour film, Once Upon a Time meanders quite a bit, basking in the glow of 60s culture, as we are given several shots of Dalton and Booth driving around Hollywood, and Tate dancing as if in her own world, all set to iconic songs of the decade. Tarantino spares no expense in recreating details of the time period, even down to the neon signs that light up as the sun sets on tinseltown. Yet in its immersive and relaxed atmosphere it is also quite predictable in the way it develops, and lacks the suspense and zippy dialogue of Tarantino's other films. Between the characters' motivations and Tarantino's penchant for revisionist revenge fantasies, we have no doubt that the Manson family will get their comeuppance in the end.

While Once Upon a Time has some fantastic performances and some genuine moments of vulnerability, including scenes between Dalton and an eight year old method actress, Booth and his dog, and Tate and an audience of moviegoers, the film languishes a bit too much in nostalgia to fully coalesce into something as effective as Inglorious Basterds or Pulp Fiction. Despite it not measuring up to his best work, Once Upon a Time is still enjoyable, lovingly crafted, and personal. In many ways, this is Tarantino's Roma, a recollection of his childhood memories intertwined with fantasy elements to present a hopeful tale of a Hollywood that could have been.

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