Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis
Writer/director Tarantino and his movies are much like Marmite: you either love them or you hate them. He can be quite the controversial figure at times, and yet his movies are generally well-received critically and are relatively timeless, whether you like them or not. It’s generally best to go in with an open mind and probably some context so you’re aware of what you’re in for. Slated as his ninth and ‘final’ film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (hereafter OUATIH) ought to be the movie that sees out Tarantino’s career as we currently know it; he’s even been heard to have labelled this movie his ‘magnum opus’. Is it really worth the accolades it’s been receiving, or might it force Tarantino and his career to slip quietly out the back?
In 1969, aging actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), known mostly for his Western television show and movie appearances, finds himself fading from the limelight and struggling to get cast. His long-time buddy and stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) also finds himself out of work, with Rick paying him to act as something of a PA. As they both attempt to revive their careers or at least find some meaningful work, we also follow the story of the real-life actress Sharon Tate (Robbie) in what would have been the final months of her life. Their paths intertwine as Sharon and her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), move next door to Rick somewhere in the Hollywood hills. Cliff becomes caught up with the infamous Manson Family, whom much of the story revolves around as a backdrop to Rick and Cliff’s exploits, and events end up going a much different way to what we know to be reality.
Not all of Tarantino’s movies have an explicit three-act structure; sometimes his stories are a snippet within a larger tale, which, if it’s not something you’re used to, can be off-putting. OUATIH is a classic example of needing to go in with some context, because although we don’t have a standard structure, this makes way for three storylines that often merge instead, two of which are entirely fictional. For the most part, it works, but unless you’re quite clued up on your Hollywood history and/or American serial murders, it can be difficult to distinguish what was real and what was not. Perhaps that’s something Tarantino aimed for: after all, it’s probably relatively normal to confuse reality and fiction in La La Land. It doesn’t mean it’s not easy to keep up with, because it is, you just need to be prepared for some grey areas and take a few things with a pinch of salt – not an uncommon thing to have to do in a Tarantino movie.
OUATIH has been cited as something of a love letter from Tarantino to classic Hollywood, a letter that leaves a massive ‘what if?’ in his alternative ending. Through Dalton and, to an extent, Booth, he’s representing the decline of and his admiration for old Hollywood, and through Tate, with her youth and beauty, he rings in the newer, younger, hipper Hollywood that starts to revolve more around who you are rather than what you’re capable of. He uses the latter to present his ‘what if?’ in a fashion that could be taken very much the wrong way, though it’s clear he’s attempted to do it with care and due thought. It’s a crossroad in history and Tarantino’s passion does exude through the characterisation and dialogue given to Dalton, the comedy from Booth and the time spent with Tate. Robbie wasn’t given too much in the way of dialogue for Tate, but the way she manages to get us to fall in love with her is all in her expressions, particularly in one scene in which she (Tate) is watching herself onscreen in a movie theatre (with the actual movie and the real-life Tate performing).
On the other side of all this, if you’re looking for something a little more action-packed and maybe as violent as other Tarantino films, this isn’t the movie for you. It goes at a much slower pace and unfortunately it does really make you feel the length of its 2 hours and 40 minutes. It dips around midway, but towards the last thirty minutes it does pick up again, meaning you’ll at least be able to leave the movie awake. But don’t let this detract you from the film’s positives, such as cinematography that is representative of older decades of film (some of those sweeping shots likely involving cranes – no drones here, thanks! – have a curious feeling of nostalgia) and costuming that will throw you right into the swinging sixties or a spaghetti western. If you find yourself drifting away from the story and/or dialogue, you’ve always got the visuals to rely on (unless it’s one of those one-take shots that goes on for a few minutes that are dialogue-heavy – if that’s not for you, you’re on your own).
Casting both DiCaprio and Pitt as leads together in the same movie can’t have been easy to do. Both are legends of the silver screen in their own right (both having also worked with Tarantino previously), and bringing them together could have been risky, but it was a risk that paid off. Separately they’re as excellent in their performances as ever, but together they play off each other as easily as if they’d been doing it for years. With DiCaprio getting on in age (and Pitt too, for that matter), it probably wouldn’t have been too difficult for him to get into the mindset of an actor worried about his longevity in the movie industry and what the future will hold (though DiCaprio has got a long way to go before he can be considered a ‘has-been’), and so his performance has something of a reality check to it. Whether he’s playing pissed-off, drunk Dalton or on-top-of-his-game Dalton, DiCaprio knows what he’s doing, and he does it well. The same could be said of Pitt, who gives perhaps one of his most charming and certainly funniest performances of his career. The ease with which he slips into Tarantino’s dialogue makes it clear to see why the director brought him back after working together in Inglorious Basterds. Booth very quickly becomes a reliable and likable character, more so than Dalton, and you’ll be wishing for more of his scenes when he’s not around. Likewise, Robbie lights up the screen every time she appears; she may not do a whole lot, but what she does do is take us on a short and memorable journey with Tate, giving those who know nothing of the actress a chance to understand the magnitude of what happened to her and why it was such a huge loss. There are also of course some excellent cameos and supporting performances, from Kurt Russell to Dakota Fanning, Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman, who has worked with Tarantino on Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill volumes) to the late Luke Perry. If nothing else, you might enjoy picking out the numerous cameos.
All of Tarantino’s movies have his mark(s) on them in many ways, but not in the same OUATIH does. It’s well-known how much of a film lover Tarantino is, he’s never made a secret of that, and his passion does pour from every scene of this film. It doesn’t however feel like it was made to be a swan song – reports say this is supposed to be his final film, others say it’s his penultimate. Ten would be a nice number to finish on, so if for no other reason he should at least make one more to round it out, but another (better) reason would be that he is capable of more than we’re given in this film. OUATIH is, in the Tarantino scheme of things, a nice film, but it’s no Pulp Fiction or Django Unchained. He doesn’t have to go out guns blazing, but if he could throw in more of his cinematic side than his side that laments for classic cinema, he would perhaps leave a better and longer-lasting mark on the art form that he loves so dearly.