Quentin Tarantino’s latest sees the renowned filmmaker indulge his love of a bygone era in Hollywood. But while Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (hereafter OUATIH) is undoubtedly entertaining, it feels vapid and oddly pointless when it’s over.
Eschewing the “Chapter” dividers that Tarantino typically uses, OUATIH follows three individuals in and around Los Angeles during 1969:
- Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) — a fading TV star undergoing a career crisis as he struggles to find his place in a rapidly evolving entertainment industry.
- Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) — Dalton’s stunt-double, valet and best friend who has difficulty finding work because of his checkered past.
- Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) — the young ingenue and wife of Roman Polanski finds her star rising, bumping elbows with some of the biggest movie stars on the planet as she navigates the entertainment industry.
OUATIH gained notoriety early on as “Tarantino’s Manson movie.” But of course, Tarantino isn’t interested in regurgitating history. In fact, Manson barely factors into the movie. While the finale takes place on the night of the infamous tragedy, things play out a little differently here.
There’s an argument to be made that excising the Manson/Tate material from OUATIH would improve the overall movie. OUATIH is at its best when it focuses on its showbiz angle. The movie spends time wallowing in the petty insecurities and hysterical hijinks of life in Hollywood. Tarantino is obviously obsessed with film history and that love shines through every frame. He’s also adept at writing banter between old friends, like those classic Vincent/Jules exchanges.
That’s not to say that the Tate material is bad. It’s perfectly fine in its own right, showcasing a sweet and borderline naive Tate who’s on the cusp of breaking big. But again, at the end of the movie, it all feels like window dressing rather than something truly vital.
DiCaprio, in his first role since winning the Oscar for The Revenant, is fine as Rick Dalton. It’s nice when DiCaprio gets to flex his comedic muscle, but the actor tears into the few genuinely dramatic moments with equal aplomb. DiCaprio is clearly still one of the best actors working today, and while this isn’t one of his best roles, he more than delivers.
Pitt is the real standout, giving one of his trademark laconic performances. But here, he’s hiding an edge behind it that we haven’t seen in a while. (Maybe since Fight Club?) It’s not a showy enough performance to get him awards consideration, but Pitt finds a way to steal scenes from his co-stars. That’s no small feat given this cast.
Robbie has a mildly thankless role playing Sharon Tate, but she does what she can with the material. Her best scene is one in which Tate sneaks into a Westwood theater to see her own movie on the big screen. Robbie plays all of the emotion to a T: anxiety, relief, joy, validation. I’m not sure there’s enough meat for her to be in the Oscar mix, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Robbie’s name pops up.
Other familiar faces include Al Pacino as a veteran agent and Kurt Russell as (yet another) stuntman. Polanski, Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, and others make brief appearances via performances by modern actors.
Period detail is mostly great, minus some anachronistic touches that slip through (mainly parking signs). But I’m not sure anyone would even notice if they didn’t know Los Angeles. Costumes are excellent and source cues are well-chosen, as usual for Tarantino. Robert Richardson’s lensing is as great as ever, and Fred Raskin’s editing has improved quite a bit since Django Unchained.