Movie Review: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
By Matthew Huntley
August 10, 2019
The brilliance of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…” stems from the way it reveals itself gradually, without an overwhelming sense of urgency. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino once again employs his greatest asset as a storyteller: he gives the narrative ample time to breathe and unfold naturally, not allowing generic contrivances or forced momentum to take over. Instead, he simply basks in the camera capturing the film’s locations and characters as they are, all while not calling undue attention to them.
The result is a long and slow film—with “long” and “slow” being assets instead of liabilities—that puts viewers surprisingly at ease. And now that I think about it, despite the hyperviolence and constant underlying tension often associated with them (“Once…” is no different in this regard), most Tarantino movies put us at ease, a feeling that that must originate from Tarantino’s sheer love for the cinema, a love that works its way onto us and makes us calm and ready to accept anything.
Given the movie’s title, its superstar cast, and the seemingly irreverent opening scene, it would be reasonable to think Tarantino’s “9th Film” would play as a typical farce and/or satire—a sendup of the Hollywood system that derides its people and places, relegating them to caricatures and stereotypes. Such an approach would have been easier and more traditional, and I’m sure Tarantino could have pulled it off, but lucky for us, the eccentric filmmaker opts to put a fresh spin on familiar material.
For starters, the movie is neither a sendup nor a glorification of Hollywood, but more a small, observant deconstruction of it—a sort of slice-of-life of a few select people tied to the movie and TV industry through various degrees and threads. That’s it—nothing more, nothing less. And once it becomes clear Tarantino’s objective wasn’t to make an all-encompassing or overarching statement about Hollywood, or say something necessarily profound about the entertainment industry, fame, greed or violence, we take a collective sigh of relief, because the pressure on us to search the film for something meaningful, important, thoughtful or biting dissolves away and we simply enjoy it for what it is.
That’s not to say the film isn’t important, thoughtful or biting—it is—but it doesn’t claim these are the reasons to watch it. It’s more laid back and easygoing. Tarantino wants us to put our feet up and keep in mind the thought, “Once upon a time in Hollywood…these things happened,” and then take away from it the idea that in a world as bizarre as Hollywood, anything can happen. There are no rules.
And as Tarantino undoubtedly knows, and then shows us with this film, any “thing,” be it a person, place or actual thing, can be made interesting, even if they might not seem like it at first. We’re so used to stories with big ideas, grandiose events and colorful characters telling us what’s important and what deserves our attention that we often lose site of the fact the minutiae of everyday life and the simple act of observing then can be just as stirring. If Tarantino’s movies were rollercoasters, they’d mostly be the slow and steady inclines, with just a few steep dips here and there. He’d rather we observe the amusement park around us rather than always anticipate and experience the sharp drops when we get to throw our hands in the air. He still makes time for the latter mind you, but he waits patiently for the right moment to deliver it.
“Once…” follows three main characters but features a wide range of supporting ones. It begins with an interview on the set of a 1950s TV Western called “Bounty Law,” starring the stiff and boy-faced Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). We meet the chain smoking Rick alongside his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who admits to carrying Rick’s “load” some of the time.
Given that Rick is the star who gets all the credit, and Cliff is the unsung hero who has the thankless task of making Rick look good, we naturally assume there’s animosity between the two. And because it’s Leonard DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two of Hollywood’s real-life heavyweights, we also assume one of these guys will eventually fall under the crush of the other.
But Tarantino doesn’t seem interested in realizing our assumptions. In fact, “Once…” is, for the most part, unassuming, and it’s not this way to be rebellious, radical or ironic, but because a modest approach makes things more interesting and unpredictable. For a movie about Hollywood, it doesn’t adhere to typical Hollywood rules but instead lets its events and people play out matter-of-factly.
Flash forward to February 1969, a time when Rick is no longer a leading man and has resorted to guest appearances on a variety of TV shows playing the “heavy,” or villain. Cliff, meanwhile, has essentially become Rick’s trusted wingman, serving as his driver, fix-it guy, and default therapist. Rick confides in Cliff and literally leans on him as he cries about being a has-been after a meeting with a veteran producer (Al Pacino) reminds him he’s no longer in the spotlight.
As Rick spends time in his chic Hollywood Hills home on Cielo Drive, either getting drunk on margaritas while trying to learn his lines or floating in his pool, Cliff heads down to his dilapidated trailer behind a drive-in movie theater in Van Nuys, where he pops open a can of beer, makes macaroni and cheese, and feeds his beloved pet pit bull named Brandy.
Tarantino’s screenplay is predominantly a day in the life of Rick, Cliff and Rick’s new next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who’s married to “the director of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’!” Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), neither of whom Rick has met. Throughout the film, we’ll watch Rick as he struggles with his guest role on a new Western called “Lancer” and makes meaningful conversation with a child actress (Julia Butters) who takes method acting to a whole new level; Cliff as he thinks back on his time as a stunt man, remembering such moments as when he accepted Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh) challenge to a friendly brawl on the set of “Green Hornet,” before making his way to the infamous Spahn Ranch and meeting its peculiar inhabitants; and Sharon as she offers rides to random strangers and heads to Westwood, where she takes in a matinee at the Bruin Theater and watches herself onscreen with Dean Martin in “The Wrecking Crew.”
This is just a brief summary of the film’s broad events, but the magic and magnetism of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…” (yes, “magic” and “magnetism” are being used to describe a Quentin Tarantino film) emanate from the many nooks and crannies in between the major events, along with Tarantino’s stylistic choices. These include but are not limited to: the soothing, classic rock-filled long takes; the slow and steady shots of characters walking toward both certainty and uncertainty; the way the camera veers steadily from left to right as two people exchange dialogue; the pleasure we derive from characters hugging themselves after they realize they’ve accomplished something special and consequently made others happy; unforeseen mechanical mishaps; nighttime plans that go terribly awry; and so much more.
Small touches and moments such as these really add up and have always been the trademark qualities that make Tarantino movie come alive, and even though they’re expectedly mundane, they end up as anything but because we feel like we’re watching truth and people behaving according to their essential natures and instincts. This is thoroughly refreshing, substantive, and, for lack of a better word, peaceful, especially when we the realize the film is not in any kind of rush.
I’m sure a director as high-profile as Tarantino has the final word on his cast, but I also imagine most actors in the real-life Hollywood pine at the chance to make an appearance in his films. It’s no wonder, then, the supporting cast is so large and diverse, with names like Emile Hirsch; Margaret Qualley; Timothy Olyphant; Dakota Fanning; Bruce Dern; Lena Dunham; Ramon Franco; Martin Kove; Tarantino regulars Kurt Russell and Michael Madsen; and the late Luke Perry, among others. As usual, nobody’s role is too big or too small but instead feels just right, and no matter what type of character they’re playing, each actor gives a sort of unofficial nod to the camera to indicate just how much fun they’re having, and so are we.
As you watch “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…”, you may ask yourself, what’s happening and why should I care? All I’ll say is let the film envelop you, because it will engage you without banging you over the head, and you’ll soon come to appreciate its many surprises, which range from funny and somber to understated and over-the-top. Like Hollywood itself, the film has many faces—sometimes it’s serious and down-to-earth, other times it’s outrageous and absurd; sometimes it’s slow and steady, other times it’s fast and out of control; sometimes it’s angry and cynical, other times it’s hopeful and upbeat; sometimes it’s soft and gentle, other times it’s extremely violent and shuddersome; and sometimes it evokes truth and the sadness of reality, while other times it functions as a dream of what things could have been. Tarantino has crafted an assorted, non-categorical amalgamation of just a few of things Hollywood can be and reminds it’s not just a place or industry, but a force that we can’t help but find ceaselessly fascinating.