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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood Movie Review

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019) movie poster Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Theatrical Release: July 26, 2019 / Running Time: 165 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Rick Dalton), Brad Pitt (Cliff Booth), Margot Robbie (Sharon Tate), Emile Hirsch (Jay Sebring), Margaret Qualley (Pussycat), Timothy Olyphant (James Stacy), Austin Butler (Charles "Tex" Watson), Dakota Fanning (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Bruce Dern (George Spahn), Al Pacino (Marvin Schwarzs), Kurt Russell (Randy, Narrator), Zoë Bell (Emily), Michael Madsen (Sheriff), Scoot McNairy (Business Bob Gilbert), Clifton Collins Jr. (Ernesto), Damian Lewis (Steve McQueen), Rafal Zawierucha (Roman Polanski), Rebecca Gayheart (Billie Booth), Lena Dunham (Catherine Share), Daniella Pick (Daphna Ben-Cobo), Lorenza Izzo (Francesca Cappucci), Damon Herriman (Charles Manson), Luke Perry (Wayne Maunder), Mike Moh (Bruce Lee)


The films of Quentin Tarantino are so steeped in pop culture and specifically cinematic inspirations that it's hard to believe he's never taken us behind the scenes of show business before. Mia Wallace's claim to fame was her failed "Fox Force Five" pilot, Death Proof focused on a stunt driver, and a film premiere was an essential part of Inglourious Basterds. But in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood,
writer-director Tarantino finally immerses us in the lives and careers of entertainers.

Set in 1969, Tarantino's ninth feature by his official count and penultimate by his threat of premature retirement, has three leads at its core. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a television star whose career appears to be on the decline. With his signature western series "Bounty Law" ended, Dalton has settled for countless guest appearances on other TV shows, usually playing the heavy, who is outwitted in an hour or less. Dalton's waning stature has reduced the number of opportunities for Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his longtime stunt double who now works more as his personal driver and gofer. The third principal is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a real young actress on the rise, who if you know today it is for her murder in 1969 by members of the Manson Family.

When Tarantino's film was announced, it sounded controversial. Even fifty years removed, the heinous incident seemed unfit for dramatization, in part because Tate's widow was Roman Polanski, a still-working filmmaker who is controversial for completely different reasons. The Tate murder have fueled Once's headlines and enraged online comments sections, but it represents a surprisingly small portion of the film that doesn't make you queasy in the ways you might fear.

Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) find themselves at a crossroads in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

Tate is a clear tertiary figure and Polanski and Manson barely feature. Tarantino invests far more into the connected, invented stories of Dalton and Booth. Dalton gets pitched to star in spaghetti westerns by a producer (a scarce Al Pacino) who cuts down the 40-something actor with brutal honesty. Booth, who has long since graduated from mere employee to best friend, points out that the Italian jobs don't sound like such a bad plan. The denim-clad stuntman is an easygoing guy, content to spend a night in his tight, untidy trailer home feeding his well-trained dog Brandy, making Kraft macaroni and cheese, and enjoying "Mannix" with a six-pack of beers at his side. Dalton is far more distressed about the possibility of a bleak future worrying over pilot season prospects every year.

Tarantino turned just six in the year this is set, but as a student of all kinds of film, he fully commits to recreating the city where he grew up and the industry that he came to revolutionize. The director does seem a little more enamored with or interested in '60s television than film, although he clearly delights in making pitch-perfect, period-accurate reproductions of both mediums. He shows us a war movie Dalton made and inserts Robbie into the real Tate's scenes of The Wrecking Crew, a Dean Martin spy comedy the actress is seen attending with the public in her most prominent arc.

Tarantino takes his sweet time to soak up the sunny atmosphere of mid-century Los Angeles and those with no interest in entertainment history could get a tad restless at this. But it's hard to imagine anyone who values cinema as an art form not simply eating up what he serves them here. It's a feast full of delicious, distinctive courses. There's Dalton trying to be his best, but drinking hard and doubting himself every step of the way, as the villain in the pilot for "Lancer" (a real TV series that ran for two seasons on CBS). There's Booth dueling on set with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and getting mixed up with hippies who have taken over a ranch once popular for filming westerns. And after jumping ahead six months, we inevitably arrive in August, when some commotion ensues at Dalton's house in Hollywood Hills, right next door to Tate and Polanski's place.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) brings a hippie hitchhiker to the Spahn Ranch, where he used to work on movies.

If you were to speculate on how Tarantino might handle the Tate murder in a way that didn't apall viewers, you could probably figure out his path. He's essentially returning to the playbook of one of his most esteemed films to date.
And while still brutal and wince-inducing, which is not how you could describe most of this 3-hour runtime, Once sticks the landing and leaves you more comfortable with Tarantino's filmmaking and his humanity than ever before. It entertains even as a pure hangout film; one of the most enjoyable scenes finds Dalton and Booth simply providing running commentary over Dalton's episode of "The F.B.I."

Tarantino can't resist including multiple shots of women's bare feet, but at least there's not a single use of the N-word, something the director has defended his right to use (and overuse). Once certainly ranks as one of his most mature works. It's not exploitative (as write-ups and his résumé suggested) and with the exception of the knowingly over-the-top but far from prolonged finale, it's not so violent. Bloodbaths are inevitable in about half of the director's canon and maybe you can still categorize this one like that, but his appetite for shock value has evolved into a more agreeable taste for subversion. I have no doubt that someone expecting something explosive and incendiary might be disappointed by the reasonably good-natured character study we get instead. Not me, though. I revisited the all the features that Tarantino both wrote and directed in anticipation of this release (Death Proof and the Kill Bill pair being long overdue first-time viewings). That task has made me grow much more appreciative of him as a storyteller and less upset by his reliance on gore.

Once showcases the best qualities of Tarantino's passions and writing. Even after just one 35mm viewing, I'm prepared to rank this among his best films. By far the best film I've seen this year, this even seems like it could have a shot at winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which three of his films have vied for but none has won (two of them settled for Original Screenplay Oscars). The performances of DiCaprio and Pitt rank among their very best. DiCaprio's recent, long-awaited Oscar win for The Revenant probably puts him out of the running, but Pitt has never won and only been thrice nominated as an actor. If he's classified as a Supporting Actor and he could be without "category fraud" claims, he's got a legitimate shot.

With that said, it's still July, which means we've got over a full month until award season even kind of begins. For now, the bigger concern is how the film is received by critics and moviegoers. The former will love it. Of that, I'm sure, even without reading the reaction to its May premiere in Cannes. Public opinion remains to be seen, but it does seem like, especially in a commercially-challenged summer marketplace, this is a movie that will perform less like Tarantino's last effort, 2015's middling The Hateful Eight, and more along the lines of Pitt and DiCaprio's popular previous collaborations with Tarantino. With a record 3,500-theater count, Sony seems poised to give the director success on his first film without the backing and distribution of Harvey Weinstein. Even if the general public does not share cineastes' admiration, and it ends up being front-loaded, there should be a rabid enough underserved adult audience around the globe to turn healthy profit on this ambitious $90 million production.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: StuberThe FarewellThe Lion KingSpider-Man: Far from Home
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino: The Hateful EightJackie BrownDjango Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall StreetRevolutionary RoadThe Revenant | Brad Pitt: The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonMoneyball

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Reviewed July 23, 2019.

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