Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Love him or hate him, few living directors can claim they’ve left such a seismic shock on the world of film like that of Quentin Tarantino (1963-present). For better or worse, “Pulp Fiction” (1994) so radically rewrote the rulebook for American film in the 1990’s that Tarantino could’ve retired right-then-and-there and STILL have had his name etched in the history of American cinema. But Tarantino never stopped being anything besides the director who marched to the beat of his own drum—and even if some of Tarantino’s qualities can irk me sometimes (it’s a love-hate relationship with me and Tarantino), I have to admire any director nowadays who remains true to themselves. And that results in a director who—despite being outclassed among his generation by the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, and possibly Wes Anderson—may very-well be the most idiosyncratic American director since Martin Scorsese.

Which leads to the current topic: his ninth film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019). Ostensibly a period piece set in 1968 Hollywood, fading Western star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a turn that’s appropriately self-absorbed yet nuanced) and his stunt-double Cliff Booth (portrayed by Brad Pitt with a level of calm-but-cool machismo that evokes someone like James Dean or young Marlon Brando) are finding themselves on the rocks career-wise while having a notable new next-door neighbor: Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie in a portrayal that’s short-but-sweet and (after researching some things Margot did on-set) teeming with subtle mannerisms done by the actual Sharon Tate). Meanwhile, the Manson family begins to prepare for what they would term ‘Helter Skelter’ (TOTALLY not a cult, eh?).

With that set-up, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” provides ample ground for Quentin Tarantino to cover themes which pepper his oeuvre, such as film itself. However, embedded in this film’s meticulous attention-to-detail (the production and costume design went out of their way to fill the streets of LA with up to 2,000 vintage 1960s cars, create (if not outright borrow) clothes worn by Sharon Tate in real-life, and recreate locales from 60s LA which don’t exist anymore) is something rarely-if-ever seen in Tarantino’s filmography: an elegiac sense of this being the end-of-an-age. Regardless of the grisly (given the one who suffers the most-graphic death is widely-suspected to have personally-knifed Sharon Tate, there’s an odd sense of karma—even if the excess can reek of misogyny) and history-diverging (insofar as in this film, Sharon’s killers meet their demise instead) climax, a viewer’s knowledge of the real-life events casts a shadow on the film since it renders Tate’s murder the unquestionable end of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That ‘end-of-an-era’ quality also mirrors the downturn in Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth’s careers, as well as (as some critics pointed out when the film debuted last summer) Tarantino himself implicitly commentating on his age and potential irrelevance. As such, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” manages to feel more like a Coen Brothers film (at least until the bloody climax) than what one expects from a Tarantino flick. That can turn some viewers off who weren’t expecting something this ruminative from Tarantino, but it’s also a welcome change-of-pace which broadens the writer-director’s wheelhouse.

However, ‘broad’ proves an apt word to describe the meandering pace of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” which both energizes the film and slightly works against it. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for dialogue written in his signature, inimitable cadence is still working like hypnosis, no matter what actor or actress is at the director’s disposal. Yet that same characteristic dialogue—when not married to an anachronistic structure like “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), or “The Hateful Eight” (2015)—appears excessive here. Perhaps it’s due to a linear structure, but that also applied to “Django Unchained” (2012), where the cadence-ridden dialogue didn’t feel as excessive in-and-of-itself (whether it was excessive for other, more-controversial reasons is a debate best left for when/if I do a Quentin Tarantino retrospective sometime). So the real culprit appears to be that Tarantino’s style of dialogue seems to exacerbate the fact that the film’s picaresque structure can—at first glance—become synonymous with plotlessness. But the strange thing is that despite being what may seem like a severe structural flaw, that same wandering quality may succeed at capturing a portrait in time (even if it’s a biased one) better than if the film opted for a traditional plot structure. As such, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” proves a film that’s best felt on a gut-level.

Although “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” may be a film which will grow on me as it percolates it my head in the coming months, the first impressions are still pretty-solid. If the Academy has such an aversion toward giving Best Picture to a foreign film or a Netflix film that a Quentin Tarantino film seems like a safe pick (which feels odd to type out), than this film wouldn’t be a bad choice. Having already seen “The Irishman” twice (as of this writing), I do already have a feeling which is the better film—and it’s not Tarantino’s.

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