Review: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Sony Pictures Releasing

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has regularly repeated his desire to carefully craft a 10-film filmography. In what would be his penultimate film (counting the two-part Kill Bill saga a single movie, as Tarantino does), his latest effort, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, combines the director’s best qualities and most frustrating attributes to deliver a polarizing experience that has remained on my mind since I left the theater.

Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the auteur director’s fourth consecutive historical drama. The movie features Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as the washed-up star up a ‘50s TV Western called Bounty Law. After a failed move to the silver screen, Rick’s career has turned to guest-starring as a villain on prime-time TV shows. 

Rick takes a meeting with his agent, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who worries that Rick’s performances are being used as career stepping stones for up-and-coming actors. Marvin warns that unless Rick can expand his portfolio and change the narrative, his career will soon be over. Marvin suggests that Rick take lead roles in Italian—or so-called Spaghetti—Westerns. Rick agrees to give the idea a shot after finishing up his remaining domestic gigs. 

Meanwhile, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s stuntman, best friend, driver, and handyman, struggles to get stunt work because stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) won’t hire a man who killed his own wife. Cliff instead spends his time running errands and stumbling into Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a hippie and member of the Charles Manson family. Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) move in next door to Rick, and the three parties (the Manson family, Cliff and Rick, and Sharon and co.) are on a collision course.

The trouble with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is that there isn’t enough character development to warrant a run time of 161 minutes. With the notable exception of DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, the characters leave the film about the same as they were introduced. This is especially perturbing in the case of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. As is well documented, although Robbie is third billed, she isn’t given much to do. Tarantino has written a myriad of remarkable, brilliant characters (many of them women), but his movies can seem like pieces by men, for men. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is markedly masculine.

The dialogue isn’t as sharp or showy as we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, though subdued Tarantino is still a compliment that most screenwriters will chase for a lifetime. The curse of expectations can be blamed for that gripe; Pulp Fiction’s lively, balletic dialogue is an industry standard-bearer 25 years later. DiCaprio and Pitt have learned how to chew up Tarantino’s tasty lines among the best of them. (The best of them, in this case, is Samuel L. Jackson.) For DiCaprio and Pitt, Once Upon a Time… is the second collaboration with Tarantino. Pitt earned some early career reps with the Tarantino-written True Romance, though the film was not directed by QT.

Since casting John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has offered a subtextual meta-commentary on his stars and their public personas. In Once Upon a Time…, Tarantino toys with DiCaprio’s stardom, forcing him to play a famous actor on the wrong side of 40. Pitt, who goes full-bore movie star as Cliff, is as handsome and charming as ever, only held back by spousal murder (more on that later). Robbie, who sings and dances her way through the near-three-hour runtime, plays Tate as frivolous and simple or delightful and innocent, depending on your perspective. Qualley, who could reasonably be fourth billed, is a star in the making.

Appearing in a Tarantino movie means as much as ever, with the likes of Pacino, Bruce Dern, and Lena Dunham guest-starring throughout. In addition to Tate, Sebring, and Polanski, Tarantino pulls in real-life stars Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis). James Marsden was cast as Burt Reynolds before being removed from the theatrical cut, and Tarantino would’ve been better served cutting Lee and McQueen, too. Lee appears in what is either a memory or a daydream, and his representation on screen is out-of-character and disrespectful. McQueen’s presence is harmless, but a cheap imitation of The King of Cool.

Once Upon a Time… is a nostalgic, picturesque view of the ‘60s, Los Angeles, and the movie business before the darkness crept its way in. Darkness came in the form of urban overcrowding, change in the film and television industry, and the Manson family. In the movie’s second act, the unpleasantness is present but held back at the periphery. Rick is preparing for an antagonistic role in Lancer when he meets co-star Trudi (Julia Butters, giving perhaps the best performance from a 10-year-old in cinematic history), an eloquent feminist, who inspires him to hone his craft.

While Once Upon a Time… is a conservative film, wistful for the Hollywood of yore, it is not contemptuous of the stars and work of years to come. Scenes between Rick and Trudi and a side-splittingly funny outburst that follows are tender, sentimental, and among the best scenes that Tarantino has ever written. Watching Tarantino direct TV-inside-a-movie is sheerly pleasurable cinema. Had Once Upon a Time… focused wholly on lionizing the decade, the Rick-Cliff friendship, and Rick’s mid-life crisis, it would serve as the director’s lightest work to date, but it wouldn’t be a Tarantino picture without an abundance of bloodshed and, since 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, genuinely weighty political themes.

As a cultural historian, Tarantino is keenly aware of his legacy as he builds it. His foot fetish has been apparent since we saw Uma Thurman’s toes on display in Pulp Fiction, but it’s never more gratuitous than in Once Upon a Time… Qualley shows off dashboard feet, Dakota Fanning bares dirty hippie feet, and Robbie reveals sunlit feet. The proclivity for feet is uncomfortable, bordering on parody. Is it possible that Tarantino, cognizant of his reputation, is trolling audiences?

A director so acutely aware of the discussion around his career and his movies should then have known that a brief cutaway scene of Cliff preparing to kill his wife would disturb audiences. Giving Cliff a backstory as a cutthroat criminal would establish the same shady, tough guy character traits. Violence against women is not fodder for character development. In attempting to mythologize the men of the ‘60s, Tarantino took Cliff over the edge.

In spite of meddlesome flaws, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a transportative time capsule that no other director dared approach. Tarantino is uniquely equipped to portray his neon-lit adopted home. The depiction of historical figures are hit and miss. Robbie, who could’ve done with more lines, is a considered reminder of the career that could have been; Sharon Tate was much more than her gruesome end. Once Upon a Time… is another entry in Tarantino’s storied career and his most challenging work to date.