Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Rating: 3 Stars
It must be every filmmaker's dream to have the creative freedom and unquestioned confidence exuded by Quentin Tarantino. To Tarantino’s credit, he’s had this confidence his entire career. Whether it be the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, the unparalleled use of the N-word in Django Unchained, or letting the camera rest on Margot Robbie’s bare feet for ten seconds, Tarantino does his work and millions of Americans pay to do so.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a piece of historical fiction, but done so well that it might as well be seen as revisionist nonfiction. Tarantino’s movie is incredibly overlong, and his camera holds and pauses and pans for many long seconds throughout.
Once Upon a Time wins your attention through its two signature performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an aging western star coming into the waning years of his career. Pitt is Dalton’s stuntman, Cliff Booth. Booth props up Dalton in his many times of drunken need while Booth clings to the remnants of his convoluted life.
Dalton and Booth don’t go through a traditional story arc or folk tale. Booth is one of Tarantino’s most fascinating characters. He’s an anti-hero after it’s intimated that he murdered his own wife for reasons that are mostly unexplained. Booth is someone who appears to be living on borrowed time but manages to get on by on his laurels. Pitt embodies a truly salt of the earth persona making his performance the best in the film (as far as the human characters are concerned, more on that later).
Dalton’s story is more traditional and details the life of a western star aging out of Hollywood. Dalton finds himself truly earning his keep as a supporting actor, but it takes him a while to cope with this downgrade. DiCaprio is as charming as he is melancholy, traversing the emotional trappings of Rick Dalton. Dalton is a drunk, but like Booth, he presents himself as benevolent to most people. Both have their skepticisms, Booth especially, and both hold no remorse or mercy.
Booth and Dalton are not good guys, Tarantino characters rarely are. I’m not sure there’s a case where a Tarantino character is truly absolved of his sins. Yet we cheer and root for them all the same.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t laced with the usual amount of violence and debauchery that Tarantino fans may be accustomed to. To those worried about becoming disinterested, there are enough scenes and moments to carry you along to what will likely be a memorable scene in Tarantino lore for future generations.
Pitt and DiCaprio are the focus of the movie, but there’s a tertiary role that’s played by Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. Tate was murdered by Charles Manson and Tarantino plays revisionist history with what would’ve been the night of the murder. Tate’s role in the film is to drive forward one of the most important roles in the film, Hollywood in 1969. We witness Tate’s relationship with Roman Polanski and Jay Sebring. There’s an overlong scene where Tate goes to a movie theatre to watch herself in a Dean Martin film. The scene does well to humanize the idea of an actress watching herself entertain others, but the scene draws out long enough for Margot Robbie’s feet to become a feature of their own.
There are also many notable supporting roles that fill out the film and serve to bolster the ideals and trappings of Hollywood.
Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) delivers one of the film’s better scenes as he challenges Booth to hand to hand combat leading to flying kicks and one very damaged car. Al Pacino playing a producer has another overlong scene in a conversation with Dalton early in the film.
One of the best performances is delivered by 10-year old Julia Butters, who plays a method child actress coaching Dalton on what being a real actor entails.
But if you really need a convincing statement that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is worth your watch, Cliff Booth has a dog named Brandy. Brandy is an absolute unit and delivers an all-time movie animal performance. Why don’t the Oscars have a “best animal” award? That’s probably a week-long research project for a future blog. Sorry Leo and Brad, Brandy stole the show.