2019 | rated R | starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Mikey Madison | written & directed by Quentin Tarantino | 2 hrs 41 mins |
In the 90s there was this brief window where independent auteur filmmakers were given mainstream studio support and lead by studios like Miramax, their horror house Dimension, Touchstone and New Line Cinema championed movies like Clerks, Chasing Amy, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Scream, Rushmore, Dark City and Fight Club that wouldn’t be made today. Miramax justly collapsed because it had to and the rest of the movie industry has undergone a studio buy-up that now only cranks out 2 hour toy commercials and remakes, a machine that sucked up or ran over most of the 90s filmmakers. There are exceptions, Wes Anderson still gets to make movies and A24 is slowly building a new house for auteurs, but this history is most of the reason that each new release by Quentin Taranino feels so special and such a part of a bygone era of mid-budget filmmaking. Warts and all, it’s an original work buy someone who treats cinema as a craft, not an automat.
Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is both more of the director indulging in his trademark passions and a little bit of a departure. Tarantino has found a groove for himself in historical fiction since Inglorious Basterds and Hollywood fits snuggly in a quadrilogy of revisionist history that has found him reinvigorated, more mature and producing some of his best work. Hollywood, is his best film since Basterds. While it’s airier and more epic than The Hateful Eight, it sprawls all over the place tracking 3 lead characters all over Hollywood while at the same time every moment in it feels tight and deliberate. Fifteen years ago the headline pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt would have been an Ocean’s 8 spectacle of Hollywood star power. Under Tarantino, they play two losers, relics of a Western past being trampled over by a hippie future. Under Tarantino, they get to shine as self-deprecating character actors.
The place is Los Angeles. The time is 1969. Our hero is Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) once the star of a 50s Western serial called “Bounty Law” now a washed-up basket of emotions confined to villain-of-the-week guest starring roles. Also struggling is his best friend and stunt man Cliff Boothe (Pitt), the strong silent type whose devotion to Dalton is such that he quietly goes about driving him around and doing odd choirs around his house. Rick thinks things are about to turn around when Sharron Tate (Margot Robbie) and post-Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski move in next door.
At over 2 1/2 hours Hollywood is a leisurely paced concoction of Tarantino obsessions: it’s a period piece, an exploration of 60s Hollywood laboring over how an actor prepares, a buddy comedy and a bloody cathartic fantasy revenge film. It’s densely packed with perfectly recreated parodies of every pop-culture sign-post of the era from the police procedural shows to the Italian Westerns and cigarette ads. We get a soundtrack of both great 60s songs and blaring 60s radio ads. Tarantino uses all of this to turn the movie itself into a backdoor modern western before it’s all over.
Most of the action – a lengthy 2nd act – takes place over the course of 1 day as Dalton tries to keep his cool while shooting a new Western pilot, Sharon Tate has a day in the city taking in the audience reaction to her movie “The Wrecking Crew” and Boothe picking up a hitchhiker, who leads him into the Manson family compound. One of the biggest things that distinguishes Hollywood from the rest of the Tarantino collection is just how chatty it isn’t. Rick Dalton is a talker, but the usual Tarantino trade in witty expository banter is limited to an early scene where Al Pacino plays a studio executive who details how and why exactly Dalton’s career is circling the drain. Both Pitt and Robbie, while occupy a lot of screen time don’t say a lot. Pitt’s character is conveyed through actions and Robbie’s through her facial expressions. The usually verbose writer has dialed it way back in order to make sequences where Boothe winds up in the middle of the Manson ranch surrounded by cultists more tense. Or a near 5 minutes scene of Boothe simply driving home across town that slow-dips us in lived-in 60s atmosphere.
What’s really going to set this movie apart and get people talking is the Manson Family element. It makes one wonder how Tarantino came to this because you can easily imagine a full version of this story that didn’t have that element in it at all. You have to just go with Tarantino a bit here to make the entire movie build up to this. Tarantino has a lot of fun moving his characters through real history – whether it’s having Brad Pitt smart-off to Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet or digitally adding DiCaprio to The Great Escape (Damien Lewis makes a perfect Steve McQueen) – which is a slow burn that finally explodes on the night of the Manson Murders.
How he weaves Dalton and Boothe into that is going to be what sends the audience out chewing over. It’s a challenge. Tarantino once again breaks every rule of moviemaking there is, spits in the face of an internet-era criticism that whines for realism. I’m a bit conflicted about it, changing the life of Adolf Hitler (who has been reduced to a video game villain at this point) is one thing, but putting the Tarantino touch on actual people is another story. The film’s finale is fun, bombastic and satisfying, but it also feels a bit rushed compared to the rest of the film and a little bit like Tarantino giving the audience what they expect of him. Nothing else in Hollywood is as brash tonally as the final 20 minutes of this film and from another filmmaker it would seem wildly out of place. Yet, I think overall it works, because the movie has done such a beautiful job setting the table with these characters in this place, in this time.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a pure joy. Tarantino absolutely excels at both recreating real 60s Hollywood and his own fictional movies and shows in it. It is absolutely crammed with freeze frame jokes and throw away lines that are hilarious. It’s totally indulgent and I was ate it up. It’s one of those works that will hopefully inspire future filmmakers. One of the very best movies of the year.