Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

A glamorized recreation of 60's L.A, a look behind the glossy front of the film industry and a sprawling map to how influences and perceptions are mediated by film.

Once Upon a Time offers a behind-the-scenes look into the past-- both with a loving fidelity to the spirit of the times, but also with a will to re-shape and re-imagine. Its Hollywood refracted back upon itself; a representation of an era shaped by how it has been passed up to the present through TV, movie, and pop culture. Through the impressive details of the production design, this experience is brought to life in a vibrant celebration of the iconography of the time, with lots of hippies, kung fu, cowboys, chain-smokin' and beer drinkin'.

There's a high energy-- especially in the beginning-- as it bounces from the life of Rick Dalton to his stunt double Cliff Booth, with generous glimpses of Dalton's work hunting bounties and frying Nazis. Yet around the middle, the momentum falters. The initial promise of Dalton grappling with being washed-up doesn't fuel enough narrative propulsion to last the entire runtime. The film becomes scattered as it tries to offer the full breadth of the era, and balance its screen-time between the three main characters. It certainly doesn't try to be plot-driven. Nor even character-driven-- for while Dalton and Booth both have an excellently established sense of character, they have little in the way of development (especially in terms of the film's length). So, I think the film primarily tries to be world-driven, and in that respect it succeeds. Yet, in building this world of screens-within-screens and dazzling personas, it veers too much into digressions and meanderings, at points becoming drawn out, even languid. A number of scenes-- while great in and of themselves-- aren't able to unite, and lacking a thread to draw them together, end up feeling diffused and disparate.

Without going into spoilers, I'll say that the film ends on a high note. In its climax, it manages to have its cake and eat it too, as the saying goes; it succeeds in both revelling in Golden-age Hollywood, while also critiquing it (although it is perfectly happy erring more on the glorify than the critique side). Once Upon a Time shows life from all sides of the camera: the actor in front, struggling to find his role in the future; the rising actress, a spirit of innocent optimism; the laid-back stuntman, content with his place behind the lines... and finally, the director, Tarantino himself, who uses his camera to craft this expansive, vibrant homage to Hollywood.

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