Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie and was directed by Quentin Tarantino. It tells the story of washed-up actor, Rick Dalton, and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, as they go through their daily lives in 1969 L.A. As Rick tries to revitalize his acting career, a series of interwoven occurrences place him as the next-door neighbor of Sharon Tate on the night of August 9th, 1969. When I first heard that Quentin Tarantino was gonna be making a movie about the Manson Murders, I was a bit wary. As a filmmaker, he doesn’t exactly tread lightly with his stories and although his propensity for gratuitous violence is in line with this particular historical event, it definitely ran the risk of being done in extremely poor taste.
However, after the trailer was released, it became apparent that this movie wasn’t about the Manson Family so much as it was contextually set in the same time period and location as the Manson Family. And so, as strange as it is to say, Tarantino handled this topic almost tastefully. Or, at least as tasteful as a Tarantino movie can get. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a sprawling slice-of-life period film that serves as both a love letter to Hollywood and a condemnation of it at the same time. This movie is anything but straightforward. Although there is a clear narrative, it’s presented in a very meandering way. Deliberate, but meandering.
This is very much the story of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth; of their relationship with one another and their particular ways of dealing with the changing film industry. Everyone and everything else in this film are secondary. There is an extraordinary number of characters who make such brief appearances in this movie that you could almost consider them cameos. And while that did get a little irritating, it also kinda made sense in the context of the movie’s commentary on Hollywood. Everything’s fluid and everybody’s in it for themselves. So, while you may meet a lot of people, the vast majority of them aren’t gonna stick around for any length of time.
That, combined with a unique editing style featuring tons of cut-away scenes, does make this movie feel more choppy and perhaps less narratively cohesive than it actually is. The loose wandering style and frequently tangential cut-aways will likely be some of the most glaring issues for many people cause they definitely do contribute to this film’s nearly three-hour-long runtime. And the argument could be made that they’re primarily exercises in self-indulgence. Movies within the movie, a lot of people watching, and a huge amount of focus on the backside of the movie industry.
Like I said, there’s definitely a narrative and a plot, but this is far more of a character-driven story than a plot-driven one. In fact, even saying that this is character-driven might be a bit of a misnomer. It’s certainly character-centric, but the free-flowing interconnected nature of all the characters and their individual stories makes it difficult to argue that the film is actually driven by anything. What this film lacks in classic plot structure, it more than makes up for with its utter immersiveness. It transports you to 1969 Hollywood. I’ve talked about it in other reviews, but the 60s are my favorite decade and I love it when modern movies are able to capture its essence. And Once Upon A Time in Hollywood certainly does that.
The attention to detail is phenomenal from the costumes to the set design, to the music. Really, the music was one of the big standout aspects of this movie for me: Simon and Garfunkel, Deep Purple, Paul Revere, and the Raiders, Neil Diamond, Los Bravos, and so many more. Sometimes movies with great soundtracks come off a little hokey cause the songs are just played over scenes, but here, they’re truly integrated into the scenes. Most of them come over a car radio or a record that a character’s playing, so rather than feeling like you’re just watching a re-creation of a time period, you feel like you’re in it with the characters. You’re listening to actual radios spots and watching tv commercials from 1969 with Cliff. You’re on the set of reality shows like Lancer and The F.B.I. with Rick.
The whole experience of this film is just so incredibly immersive. Speaking of the experience, I’d is remiss not to talk about Tarantino’s direction here. This is his ninth film (or tenth depending on how you classify the Kill Bills) and over these last twenty-seven years, he’s developed a number of signature Tarantinoisms that seem to always find their way into his films and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood are no different. The nonlinear narrative? Check. Voice-over narration? Yup! The foot shot. Uh-huh. Lots of references to other movies? This is called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for a reason, after all.
Brutal, borderline gratuitous violence? Of course! I have to say though, on that point, this felt like one of the most toned-down Tarantino movies. Don’t gets me wrong, the trademark Tarantino violence is definitely there. It’s just not as prevalent as usual, so this movie actually feels unique among his filmography. It’s still brash, it’s still Tarantino, but it might just be his most reserved and mature film. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one is definitely the immersive 60s setting. This movie feels like both a time machine and a time capsule. It completely transports you to 1969, so you feel like you’re living the events of the film with the characters. Unique filming angles and plenty of backseat perspective shots truly put us in the movie.
But, it’s not just the rush of experience that the time machine gives us. It’s also the nostalgia and sentimentality that we get from the time capsule. I was still several decades away from being alive in 1969, but this movie is so drenched in love for the time period that it’s hard not to get caught up in it. The look, the ideals, the sounds, the music: it’s all replicated so well that you kinda forget you’re watching a modern-day work of fiction.
Pro number two has gotta be the performances, specifically Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. DiCaprio is wonderful as the anxious washed-up actor and Pitt’s charismatic charm is extremely well-suited for the laid-back down-on-his-luck stunt double. They’re both fantastic actors in their own right, but this combination is perfect. If you were hoping for plenty of scenes with these two together, you won’t be disappointed. A huge chunk of the film focuses on their characters’ friendship and business relationship, so there’s plenty of interplay between the two of them.
The other actors all give very good performances as well, most notably Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate and Michael Moh as Bruce Lee, but nobody besides DiCaprio and Pitt has any significant amount of screentime. On the con side, my biggest issue is what I just mentioned: the fairly insignificant minor roles. I loved the focus on Rick and Cliff, but there were just so many characters introduced who ended up having only one or two scenes that were frequently inconsequential to the plot. It’s likely a result of the slice-of-life story style and Hollywood’s fluid nature in general, but it did leave a lot of tangential story threads left hanging, unexplored. My second con is the inconsistent direction, specifically with the Tarantinoisms.
I already mentioned how few instances of his trademark violence there was, but the other signature film components were also pretty inconsistent. For instance, he used name subtitles in a single scene and never utilized the technique again. Similarly, the use of voice-over was also extremely inconsistent. There was one brief instance of it near the beginning of the film and then it’s not utilized again until the final 30 minutes or so. I don’t have any problem with the technique, but the big gap in its use begs the question: why even bother introducing it so early in the film if you’re barely gonna utilize it. It kinda makes some of these trademarks feel shoehorned in just cause it’s a Tarantino movie, rather than feeling natural for the story.
I’m gonna give Once Upon A Time in Hollywood 4 out of 5 paws. I’m not the biggest Tarantino fan, but I really loved the crafting that went into this film. The 60s setting and music were fantastic, the interconnected nature of the story flowed exceptionally well, and it was supremely entertaining for a fan of movies. I would recommend Once Upon A Time in Hollywood to both fans of Tarantino and people who like the movie industry and movies about making movies.
This film might be a bit tame by Tarantino’s standards, but it still has all the hallmarks of his filmmaking style and works nicely as his tribute to Hollywood. It’s a bit meandering and long, but if you don’t mind the slice-of-life, at times, almost vignette-style, then you’ll likely really enjoy this one. If you liked Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, I would definitely recommend Sunset Boulevard for another film that pulls the curtain back on Hollywood, giving us a glimpse of the backside of the film industry.
If you liked the buddy pairing of DiCaprio and Pitt, you might like The Nice Guys which features Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as an investigative pair who get sucked into another side of L.A.’s film industry. If you enjoyed the 60s setting and want another immersive period film (which just so happens to also star Leonardo DiCaprio), be sure to check out Catch Me If You Can. And, if you just want another Tarantino movie, I would recommend Inglourious Basterds for another film that tackles an unpleasant historical event in an interesting way.
Alright, a couple of questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen Once Upon A Time in Hollywood? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite movie about movies? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going. Alright, so if you got some enjoyment, insight, or information out of this review.