If the late ’60s were a freewheeling time in America, and its Hollywood filled with lounging hippies and the dimly glinting stars of an ending Golden Age of film, then Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a complete tonal recreation of this period of time.
In February 1969, former television cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has lost his luster in La La Land, resorting to taking parts as the “heavy” in one-episode appearances on serials. He is frustrated with his falling capital as a star in Hollywood, getting teary-eyed and bitter when agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) offers him leading roles in Rome on spaghetti western sets. And he hates hippies.
On the flip side, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is starry eyed after her role in The Wrecking Crew. She goes to see the movie in a theater, where she is delighted by the audience reaction. She is on top of the world.
And sitting on the fringes of these two narratives is the specter of Charlie Manson and his commune of followers.
These narrative threads all dangle, with Tarantino’s script bouncing between the characters of Dalton, Tate, and Dalton’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). And the story goes freewheeling. For better and worse. This is the least cohesive script Tarantino has written, and it has some of his least cutting dialogue.
It seems that Tarantino is more concerned with capturing the mood and feeling of 1969. And he does this very well. In doing so, he also gives himself ample room to do the genre pastiches that he loves to do. He creates full scenes from fictional television westerns, even though they don’t advance the plot. They are fully enjoyable to watch, but they contribute to a lengthy film that rambles. And this rambling won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
What substance the film does have is in its central relationship, a dynamic friendship between Dalton and Cliff. DiCaprio and Pitt both provide fantastic performances, and the way their relationship unfolds is the most engaging aspect of the film.
Far more engaging than the Manson plot. Tarantino’s rewriting of history in Inglorious Basterds is messy and bombastic in a fun way. His rewriting of history in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is less entertaining, as it takes away from what is most compelling about the film. The sequence at the ranch that the Manson family calls home is tense and gripping, but it doesn’t lead anywhere satisfying. By the end, the Manson acolytes are mostly annoyances.
Still, Tarantino is at his most lively here. He clearly is having fun being able to create this vision of 1969, full with allusions to the period and to the Hollywood products he watched so much of in his formative years. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a full experience, and Tarantino’s deft tonal control makes it so easy to immerse oneself in that experience.
The dual narrative of a fading star and a rising star is a great take on Hollywood 1969, and it is a novel approach to Sharon Tate (compare it to the horrendous depiction of the actress’s final days in The Haunting of Sharon Tate). Robbie’s sweet and happy-go-lucky take on Tate is magnetic, even when Robbie’s Tate gets so few instances to actually speak. DiCaprio’s aging cowboy is played emotionally weighty while being presented for humor, and it is effective.
Their stories are interesting (though we could have gotten more of Tate), but they are downplayed by the Manson subplot. And at the film’s end, this takes away from the immersive experience. However, there are many tasty morsels in here that Tarantino fans will adore.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)