Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood portrays many a fantasy, even weaponizing the Hollywood dream in the search for that happy ending we all seek.
It’s purely wonderful just how easy-breezy Quentin Tarantino’s 9th Film plays itself over the course of the two and a half hours we sit before it. It’s vaguely similar to the rest of his catalog: Foot-tapping songs, references to bygone era cinema, feet, etc. However, it is not like the others in a way most blunt. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood flows slowly while keeping pace, meditating and ruminating on and with its main characters more often than having them do “things” to create the illusion of movement. The trick of a plot. There IS a plot here, to be clear, and it might be considered sluggish to some. But, if you’re tuned in just right, you’ll pick up on something that completely upends and reinvents (to a point) what Tarantino has done before.
Is this Quentin’s most “personal” film? Is this his most “mature”? I dare not presume to know nor do I even really care to quantify those notions. What interests me here is how Hollywood is laid out. Starting with an all too brief black & white television promo interview with serial western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/best friend Clifford Booth (Brad Pitt), we establish two things: That these two were/are buddies, and that at one point in their careers, they were sought after greatly. Cut to 1969, and they’re both experiencing a downswing. Well, Rick is anyway. He’s still working, while Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in, working as Rick’s driver and handyman.
The only difference between these two is that Rick is insecure, anxious, and unhappy with his current position, while Cliff is just cool and content. Both men have their moments of bliss, reliving the good old days through memory (like when Cliff has a “friendly” fisticuff with Bruce Lee) and congratulations on a job well done — like the funny and poignant moment when a child actress tells Rick how great he did throwing her to the ground, making him tear up with pride. In Hollywood, what goes up must come down, but that doesn’t mean the fall happens quickly or without brief pauses of magic.
Tarantino treats the Dalton and Booth bro-hood with a kindly open-world hug, by which I mean that no matter what route or path is taken in the film, these two men will remain together through thick and thin. Initially, when I read that Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) would be involved in this tale, I imagined her and the real-life tragedy of her murder would be the central obstacle or meeting point. Instead, when we’re introduced to her and Roman Polanski as next-door neighbors, Rick (in the middle of an emotional breakdown) remarks how his luck might be coming back.
Tate, through the charm and bubbly attitude of a wide-eyed and humble performance from Robbie, may not “speak” all too often or have much “action” to do from a superficial level, but her role and time spent on screen are all-too-important to what Tarantino wants us to get out of his day in the life of film. Tate runs errands, parties, listens to good music, and even — the maybe the most beautiful moment — watches her latest movie in a theater with the public. Her feet kicked up, herself laid back and genuinely touched by just seeing her image reflected by light, we get a real feel for not just what could’ve been and should’ve been in our reality, but of a time when theaters were everywhere and thriving. A time that we all wish to occur again, in our own ways.
I don’t know where I would rank Hollywood in the Tarantino-verse of films, but it’s certainly his most unique picture. Choosing a more free-wheeling approach than ever before, Tarantino gives mainstream narrative storytelling a shot in the neck and a breath of mountain air. There’s suspense in the comedy, there’s comedy in the chilling, there’s tenderness in the manly, and there’s a fairy tale above a city most ruthless. Maybe with each new movie he rushes out, Quentin is improving? Evolving? Challenging himself and us all? Perhaps so.
If Hollywood is saying anything, it’s that 1) Things can change for better and worse in just one serendipitous snap, 2) Ultimately, the glamour of Hollywood pales in comparison to the dreams that can come out of it, and 3) Within these dreams, anything is and should be possible. Up until that climax, Tarantino is just freely showcasing moviemaking in L.A. at the cusp of two new eras: The New Hollywood days and the reign of the blockbuster (which we’re kind of still in). As Cliff drives around town looking for adventure, Tarantino too is exploring what is possible on any given day in a place and time when anyone/everyone wanted to be famous. Not that this isn’t still true today, it’s just more… democratized?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (I refuse to place the ellipsis anywhere in the title) is exactly that and more. It’s a fairy tale vision in a dream factory of a city. Worlds within worlds, Hollywood(land) exists more than a real place, but as an idea. And it’s that idea that can lead anyone to anything, given their ambition and goals. For Dalton, he just needs to evolve and get with the curve. For Cliff, just keep on keeping on. For Tate, don’t lose that special feeling. That spark.
Tarantino sees this spark everywhere, and finally focuses it inward to the California landscape, granting us something more than stylistic nostalgia for things he saw as a kid. That something would be the reconciliation of everyday life and the charm of diving into absolute fantasy. Into escapism. And maybe everyone and everything deserves some kind of happy ending or respite from pain.
That’s partially what movies are for, right?
RATING: 5 / 5