Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

"Who ordered the fried sauerkraut?!?"

My oh my. Quentin Tarantino has finally satirized himself, in the best, and most Tarantino-esque way possible. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino's slickest, most commercial outing he's made yet, taking the crown from his earlier film Jackie Brown, and yet by sheer insinuation that it's a Tarantino film, and thusly home to hallmarks that are distinctly bound to the iconic filmmaker, this is probably his best, most assured and strongest outing as an auteur since Kill Bill vol. 1.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in 1969, and tells the story of one Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once popular actor of TV westerns who is sitting at the crossroads of an actor's version of a midlife crisis, torn between taking what he believes to be "sub-par" acting jobs in Italian spaghetti westerns, and continuing on the path of middling second and third billed "guest" shots on other TV shows, often playing the bad guy of the week. Helping him through all this is his stunt double/conscience/best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), himself unsure of where the future may take him based on his friend's decision. And like a ray of sunshine cutting through Rick's gloom is his next door neighbors, actress Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski, who's success the year previously with Rosemary's Baby has catapulted him into the arena of the hottest, most in-demand directors at that time. Rick yearns for a chance, one single chance where he might meet Polanski and maybe get a role in one of his upcoming films, therefore pulling his career out of the tailspin its in, and therefore continues on in his whisky infused daily regimen of TV bit parts, still hoping against hope, while Cliff begins to come into contact with a commune squatting at a former TV ranch out in the sticks, led by a failed songwriter named Charles Manson...

This was an excellent time at the theatre. Now, it's no small surprise that Tarantino is a massive fan of movies and that he borrows liberally from his influences to help flesh out his films and provide quirks to them that almost operate like easter eggs, making a viewing of one of his films almost a game to guess what film(s) he's pulling his influences from, and in here Tarantino not only has this habit of his on full display, he goes particularly meta with it. Some of the funniest moments on display are when the fourth wall is shattered by exposing the filming process, or when the main characters are interacting with famous celebrities and/or films, like the Bruce Lee segment or the Great Escape story, and it's usually with these moments that Tarantino is fully expressing and exposing his love for the magic of cinema and its bygone "golden" years, and yet we see it as best we can through his particular point of view, and that's by the way he tells this story and by the characters he populates his story with. As the main characters, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are absolutely perfect for one another, playing and ping-ponging off one another so fluidly, so effortlessly, that one wonders why this particular pairing wasn't done sooner; one cannot lavish praise on the one without giving equal praise to the other, and both DiCaprio and Pitt carry the film flawlessly. It's a shame though that while DiCaprio and Pitt shine here, no one else really has anything to do other than propelling the plot forward or standing in for famous celebrities like Steve McQueen, himself a star of TV westerns before breaking big in Hollywood, or Roman Polanski, or Charles Manson, or even "Mama" Cass Elliott. It's a damn shame that Margot Robbie, despite her high billing, is so criminally underused in her character of Sharon Tate, who in real life tragically died a victim of the cult of Manson.

The cinematography, costumes, music and set design are also used to help Tarantino craft his love letter here, attempting to show and display enough of the time period to fully immerse you in the world he's created here. Now, that's not a bad thing, no -- far from it; everything feels so "hand-picked", so authentic, that it even began to give me wistful feelings of nostalgia towards an era where I wasn't even a gleam in either of my parent's eyes. And the directing. Bravo. Now, to me it felt with Tarantino's previous outings in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained that Tarantino began to feel somewhat indulgent in his style and directing, and while both films are quite good, they didn't feel quite up to snuff when compared to his earlier ouevre; with The Hateful Eight, it seemed that he knew he'd gotten lax and was trying to make amends, yet wasn't fully willing to give up these stylistic luxuries, and when we get to here it feels like he's trying to reclaim his style present in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, short of recapturing lightning in a bottle. Gone are blatant stylistic indulgences, instead opting to subtly integrate smaller ones in the hallmarks we've all come to expect from a Tarantino film, with the end result being a more palatable, more enjoyable experience all around. Here, it doesn't feel like there's a loss of confidence or questioning about what Tarantino wanted to accomplish, yet there's so much restraint and maturity on display it almost doesn't feel like you're watching a Tarantino film at times, but by the end you know he's indelibly left his mark on the film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees Quentin Tarantino at his most mature and his skill as a filmmaker at their fullest; even though may never be able to capture the energy and magic of his first films again, his effort here certainly sees him try his hardest, and come the closest. Recommended!

[edit]: stick around about halfway through the credits for a word from the sponsor, Red Apple cigarettes!

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