By Charles Kirkland Jr.
A fading star and a washed-up stuntman face the changing 1969 Hollywood together in Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) used to be a big star in Hollywood. He was the star of the NBC television series, Bounty Law but after making a not-too-successful attempt in movies he has been relegated to guest-starring as villains on other shows. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Dalton’s stuntman. Because of a number of reasons, Cliff has fallen out of favor in Hollywood as well. Even though he is the personal stuntman to Dalton, Booth struggles to find any other work than being Dalton’s best friend which includes being a chauffeur, repairman and all-around man Friday. As the landscape of Hollywood changes, Dalton and Booth find themselves on the outside most of the time. When Roman Polanski and wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door, Dalton is encouraged that things could be changing for him.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and stars DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie, Emilie Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, the late Luke Perry, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Dakota Fanning, and many others in typical Tarantino fashion.
Much like Roma was Alfonso Cuarón’s love letter to Mexico City, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is Tarantino’s to Los Angeles. Hollywood accurately and realistically captures the look and feel of Los Angeles when Tarantino was a child. The music is right. The cars are authentic. The grittiness is correct and the hippie invasion is real. Like Roma, the audience finds itself in this movie meandering along with Rick and Cliff almost aimlessly experiencing the world of 1969 Los Angeles. But unlike Roma, Hollywood is a fantasy invented by Tarantino with shards of reality interspersed. Tarantino injects the story of Polanski, Tate, and Manson as a subtext to the story which by the end of the movie moves to the foreground in a truly expected yet totally Tarantino way.
The biggest problem with the picture is that some of the experience is way too dated for many to care about. While many may know about Charles Manson, there are too many people who will have no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the death of Sharon Tate or the now exiled Polanski. Those who will love the movie (without studying the history prior) are a small segment of an older generation who will probably not even go to see the movie. With the subject matter as it is, Tarantino exhibits an ambitious belief that audiences will just accept the film on face value and just go for the story.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is not meant to break box office records. This movie is Oscar bait pure and simple. The performances of DiCaprio and Pitt are phenomenal. DiCaprio weaves in and out of being an actor playing a role and back with a seamless finesse that is psychotic at times. Pitt is smart, super-cool and laid back as the stuntman who could hold his own with Bruce Lee and sensitive enough to care about an old friend. Both of these performances are stellar and intense and worthy of attention by the Academy as early entrants into the race.
Despite the inspiring and compelling work by the actors Pitt and DiCaprio, this film suffers a little from the lack of the typical chapter headings which allow the viewers to focus and follow the story. However, any fan of Tarantino should be accustomed to this style of storytelling and able to follow the awkward progression of the movie. Where the aforementioned movie Roma was a stellar work in lighting, cinematography, and direction, Hollywood features the same stellar work in cinematography, costume and set design plus the scratches and other film defects reminiscent of old films a la Grindhouse that make it feel like a classic old film.
While Tarantino is celebrating the old style of film and the LA culture of his youth, the movie takes its own sweet time to arrive at its incredibly fun and violent conclusion. Is the payoff worth the ride? Maybe. Rated R for strong language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a slow-burn, time machine fun ride back into the history of Los Angeles and its film scene. It is not Tarantino’s greatest work but, it is a super-cool and entertaining piece of revisionist fantasy fiction. After all, that is what Tarantino does better than anyone else.