Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★

In 1969, the landscape of Los Angeles is changing. The golden age of Hollywood is in the rear view mirror, as earnestly charismatic icons of cinema are ushered out in favor of complex antihero characters in increasingly cynical stories. The idealistic hippie dreams of peace and love are being corrupted with shady undercurrents. Through it all, however, traces of classic glamour, starstruck wonder, and ambitious hopes can still be glimpsed through the tendrils of cigarette smoke.

Years after his heyday in the lead role of a cowboy bounty hunter in a western television series, Rick Dalton, an actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio, struggles to come to terms with the reality that his career is fading into irrelevance. With his longtime stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, at his side, he now pays the bills by appearing in one-shot guest roles as villains in various shows while a casting agent, played by Al Pacino, tries to convince him to relocate to Italy to work in spaghetti westerns. Even at his home on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, the sight of his new next-door neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, played respectively by Rafal Zawierucha and Margot Robbie, is a painful reminder to Rick of the youthful opportunities and aspirations that now seem out of reach to him. As Rick resolves to recapture his former glory in his current part as a hip-dressed bad guy and as Sharon makes her way from one nightlife party to another, Cliff catches the eye of a teenage hitchhiker, played by Margaret Qualley, and drives her to Spahn Ranch, where she has taken up residence with a “family” of wayward outcasts in the ramshackle houses of old film sets under the watchful eye of their leader, Charles Manson.

The 2019 comedy drama, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, is the latest and most expansive feature to date from Quentin Tarantino, whose dialogue-driven screen tales, laced with enthusiastic odes to the movies and music that influenced him, have a haphazard feel that gives them an air of perpetual unpredictability, even to fans who have watched them dozens of times. With its run time of two hours and 41 minutes, this outing is leisurely laid-back even by Tarantino's standards and is likely destined to be the director's most divisive project, but serious fans of cinema will find much to appreciate in every corner and crevice.

The attention to detail here, with regard to the era at hand, is astonishing. I love one particular sequence at a Playboy Mansion party, where Robbie's Sharon Tate is dancing with her friend, Jay Sebring, played by Emile Hirsch, while Steve McQueen, portrayed with vivid authenticity by Damian Lewis, and Connie Stevens, played by Dreama Walker, look on. Colorful Cinerama signs and theatre marquees advertising Romeo and Juliet light up the streets as the characters cruise around the town. The spaghetti western posters and references, including a nod to the amazing director, Sergio Corbucci, who helmed Django (1966), The Great Silence (1968), and The Mercenary (1968), bring a smile to my face, since I am an avid fan of the genre.

Through it all, Tarantino also subtly tips his hat to his own past triumphs. Be on the lookout for one humorous scene with Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell, both of whom starred in Death Proof, as married filmmakers who react with horrified disdain after Pitt's stuntman character interacts with Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh. In terms of tone and pacing, this movie shares the most common ground with Tarantino's Jackie Brown, which received a muted reception upon its release in 1997, but has since been heralded by many as his crowning achievement. One particular sequence, where DiCaprio's Rick and Pitt's Cliff are watching one of Rick's old shows on television and commenting on the theatrics, recalls a hilarious moment in Jackie Brown where Samuel L. Jackson looks at a television and praises the AK-47 assault rifle.

DiCaprio delivers a tour de force role here, especially when his character is filmed taking a hostage in front of a cowboy played by the late Luke Perry. In this buddy film of sorts, we are afforded with the opportunity to hang out with his Rick Dalton through thick and thin, while taking in his range of emotions, from drunken regret, to humble neediness, and, finally, to inspiring resilience.

Robbie shines as bright as the sun in what is basically Tarantino's elegiac tribute to Sharon Tate. We are even treated to an extended sequence of Robbie's Tate watching herself on the screen while attending an afternoon matinee of The Wrecking Crew (1968), where the actual Tate co-starred with Dean Martin. As the character watches her real self on the screen and relishes in the reactions of the audience around her, a somber vision of all that could have been lurks under the surface and we find ourselves wondering what heights the ill-fated actress could have achieved had she not been murdered.

This movie, however, belongs to Brad Pitt. As the stuntman Cliff, he cues us in to his unwavering support for DiCaprio's Rick while he quietly mourns his own career status in the Van Nuys trailer where he lives. We see the scars, hazards of his occupation, on his upper body, we see the cheerful spark in his eyes as he tries to encourage his employer, we sense his yearnings for youth when his eyes meet with a younger woman, and, during a pivotal scene, we see his rugged toughness. I believe that this is the finest performance of Pitt's entire career.

The bulk of this movie may stress the patience of audiences who are accustomed to more conventional color-by-numbers fare, but I implore everyone to pay attention all of the way to the home stretch. I will not discuss the actual plot mechanics that Tarantino's “California Dreaming” vignettes spend well over two hours building towards, but I cannot imagine any follower of this director being underwhelmed with the payoff. I have yet to decide whether or not this is his masterpiece, but I will say that everything that I have come to love about his brand of storytelling over the past few decades is on full display.

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, like all fairy tale stories, is in awe of its material. This is the best amusement park ride through the days past of the movie industry that I have experienced in recent memory, and it is one of my favorite releases of the year. Be sure to stay seated after the credits start to roll.

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