REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Sony Pictures Releasing

The following is a spoiler review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin Tarantino has claimed that he will only direct ten feature films, and, since he considers his latest film to be his ninth, that puts a lot of pressure on this penultimate effort as a director. Having just recently rewatched and reviewed his filmography as a director, I had prepared myself for this undeniable event film for cinephiles. When I walked out of the theater, I had a soft smile on my face, and I kept on repeating these words to my mother and sister, who had seen the film with me: “I think this is his most moving movie yet.” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is tense but also laidback, sometimes violent but generally quite kind, and much to my own surprise, as Tarantino ended his film, I had a lump in my throat — I got a little bit choked up.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows the buddy-duo of Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a former Western television star who thinks his career is over, and Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt), Dalton’s easy-going stunt double and best friend who has a troubled past. While Dalton tries to resurrect his career on television pilots, Cliff drives around doing errands for his best pal and boss. Meanwhile, Rick’s next-door neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) is enjoying her new stardom in Hollywood, and, without revealing too much, as the film comes to a close their paths must ultimately cross as disturbed individuals eventually show up outside their homes.

When it came to anticipating Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I have, in the last few months, often been of two minds. On the one hand, I have been excited about the incredibly star-studded cast, as well as the opportunity to see 1960s Hollywood through the eyes of a celebrated and detail-oriented film buff-turned-director. On the other hand, I have also been uncomfortable and worried about what potential unintentional emotional damage Tarantino might do to the families of those who lost someone in the infamous Los Angeles murders on the night of August 8th, 1969.

As the title indicates, this is a fairy tale — and even a loving fairy tale — but one with a ticking time bomb for those who know what happened on the street that Sharon Tate lived on that summer. What Tarantino wisely does with this challenging and potentially controversial subject matter is to present a humanized and happy Sharon Tate having the time of her life — with her star ascending and her family about to become a little bit bigger — but she is kept at a distance. His alternate reality Hollywood revenge fantasy does a kindness to — some might say it is a tribute to — icons and would-be-icons of the day, but then, of course, Tarantino also indulges in, first, his obsessive interest in cultural history and, then, his excessive violent fantasy to an oddly satisfying but extremely shocking and gruesome effect.

It is a film about new and old Hollywood. I would argue that the film positions Rick Dalton as the personification of old Hollywood, while Sharon Tate (and Julia Butters’ character) represents new Hollywood, in the dawning of a new Hollywood era. It is also a film about legacy and understanding your own role at the closing of the curtain. Furthermore, in a way, the ending of the film would be an appropriate send-off for Tarantino’s career.

Tarantino’s soundtrack decisions, Arianne Phillips’ costume design, and, finally, the impeccable production design from Babara Ling makes this feel like a living, breathing, dazzling Hollywood of a bygone era. Tarantino’s film is, of course, filled to the brim with references to pop culture, and he goes to great, potentially character tarnishing lengths to include a classic Hollywood rumor about Natalie Wood’s death. Cinephiles and cultural historians alike will be delighted by the attention to detail as well as the fun cameos that make this an essential Hollywood movie, even though it showcases somewhat of an alternate reality.

Tarantino’s best film is a wish-fulfillment alternate reality film and many of his films are based around some kind of revenge. So, his decision to make another revenge fantasy is predictable, but I also think it was the right thing to do, even though the sudden violence at the end of the film almost feels alien to the rest of the film. I’m sure Tarantino greatly enjoyed giving Hollywood an opportunity for payback almost as much as I am sure he enjoyed letting Sharon Tate be a character untainted and undamaged by the film or the events that the film details and alters significantly. Tate as an individual is, for many, remembered merely as the wife of Roman Polanski, and, to many others, she may be defined by her demise. Tarantino thankfully goes to great lengths to show her as a happy, kind, talented, and loving young woman who entertained others and had great potential. He is generous and kind to Sharon Tate’s memory.

I’m, honestly, not sure if it was the way Tarantino wanted to honor Tate that made me choked up, or if it was the note that he ended Pitt and DiCaprio’s final scene together with that did the trick. I say that this is a hangout movie with the utmost respect. One of the reasons why I desperately want to rewatch the film is because I just enjoyed Cliff and Dalton’s friendship so much. Theirs is a positive, healthy friendship between two adult men who enjoy each others company thoroughly. Seeing them react to an episode of a television show that Rick Dalton appeared in was absolutely delightful. Seeing Cliff boost Rick’s self-esteem when he needs it the most gave me joy. Pitt and DiCaprio have outstanding chemistry. I think this is a movie that will be very rewatchable precisely because you want to spend time with these great friends again and again.

On a list of frequent collaborators with which Tarantino has the best partnership, Samuel L. Jackson or Christoph Waltz may be at the very top prior to the release of this film, but, after having seen this film, I think Brad Pitt is just as good. Here Pitt oozes charisma and is effortlessly cool. He’s a complex but easy-going personality, and Pitt’s performance is arguably more memorable than the one he gives in Inglourious Basterds. DiCaprio is also incredible here with a performance that gives him the opportunity to show several insecurities in scenes that blur the line between humor and drama. Margot Robbie is charming as Sharon Tate, but it is a limited role by design and probably for the better, that is, if I understand correctly what he was trying to do with the Sharon Tate character’s appearance. I will also add that Margaret Qualley, who you may know from The Leftovers, gives a breakthrough supporting performance as a flirtatious cultist.

I will admit that some scenes perhaps go on for too long, the film itself may be a little bit too long, and, yes, in a way this film is almost three hours of DiCaprio sulking on sets, Pitt driving and Robbie walking around Los Angeles, and that may not be the most exciting thing Tarantino has put to screen. I understand those criticisms, I will acknowledge them as potential issues, but I didn’t, personally, find much here that had a negative impact on my viewing, even though Tarantino unapologetically but distractingly decided to put feet front and center in several shots like he has been known to do.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is three different things all at once. This is, obviously, a love letter to late 1960s Hollywood — and, in length, to Tarantino’s childhood — but it is also both a wish-fulfillment alternate reality revenge fantasy for Hollywood of that era — a cinematic opportunity for payback and justice — as well as a genuinely moving and warm hangout movie about male bonding, male friendships, and legacy (in more ways than one). I loved every minute of this movie and I’m excited about getting to revisit it in the future.

9.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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