Quentin Tarantino's ninth film is a fond revision of the Silver Age of Hollywood, as remembered by someone whose life was changed by it.
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is not Quentin Tarantino’s best film…but that's not exactly a fair measure coming from the guy who changed the face of cinema with "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" in the 90s, and who has only produced gem after gem since. His latest effort is one heck of a piece of entertaining cinema, and with a cast featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, it’s sort of like watching the Harlem Globetrotters take the court…the talent is just off the charts and the whole production from top to bottom is just in a league of its own.
Taking place in a vividly detailed Hollywood of the late 1960s, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, the fictional star of the fairly successful "Bounty Law" TV program. His long-time stunt-double and best friend is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is so attached to the actor that he basically acts as his personal assistant off-screen, driving Dalton around town in his fancy car and even doing repairs around Dalton's house in the Hollywood Hills. In this reality, that house happens to butt up next to that of real-life director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and anyone familiar with the history of Hollywood knows where this story might be headed.
Polanski's new girlfriend is the bubbly, ray-of-light, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the up-and-coming actress who was brutally murdered at that home by the Manson Family. And if Charles Manson seems like a strange backdrop for a story celebrating the glory days of Hollywood, well then you might not be too familiar with Quentin Tarantino's strange obsession with violence, as it relates to entertainment.
In a weird way, it's best that you just see the film, as no plot synopsis really does "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" much justice. It isn't about the Manson Family necessarily, just as it isn't at all a biopic about Sharon Tate. If anything, the main theme of the film seems to be a reflection on becoming irrelevant in a changing world. That's a premise that is probably a bit personal for Tarantino...once the hottest director on the planet but now finding himself at a point in his career where he needs to prove that he's still relevant.
But this is more of a ponder than a deep dive…this movie doesn’t have the focus of someone trying to really make a provocative point with his film. There’s the normal amount of sharp dialogue, wonderful cinematography and production value (I could see this movie getting nominated for several awards, from Costume Design on through Makeup and Hairstyle), and the occasional fit of ultra-violence that we would expect to find in a Tarantino film. And the title – “Once Upon a Time” – is accurate, in that this is mostly fantasy…it's something that Tarantino has always been guided by, whether it be his inventive "outside-the-box" narrative on films like "Pulp Fiction," or his re-writing of historical events the way he sees fit in movies like "Inglorious Basterds" and "Django Unchained." Yes "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" isn't strictly about Hollywood as it was in the 60s, it's in part about how it should have been.
Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie...is there a better trio of working, living actors at the top of their games? You know it’s a special film when legends like Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant and Bruce Dern are all side characters, only appearing in a few scenes each.
With all of the talent abound, it's impossible for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" not to work. It does, and it's as entertaining a film as you'll see this year. Still, it’s a bit long and sort of drifts all over the place, with some of the plot threads seemingly going nowhere. Tarantino has been more focused as a filmmaker and as a screenwriter as he is here, but he's perhaps never been more comfortable.
While this is clearly a recognizable Tarantino film, it doesn't beat you over the head with stylized editing, camera movements or even dialogue, like the filmmaker has done in the past. He seems to know that he's working with the best of the best, and he no longer feels the need to prove that he's in that category, with every frame of film. Some may say that this is a sign that Tarantino, like Rick Dalton, is on the down-swing of his career, but I think that it's more about maturing. This is a mature film that pays a great deal of respect to a specific time in Hollywood's history, and ends the way that Tarantino wants it to, as he adheres to the old adage: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
"Once Upon A Hollywood" may not be the best of Tarantino, but by God, cut the man some slack. He's still one of the most singularly talented filmmakers of a generation, and I'll take "not-quite-a-classic" from him over most anything else, any day of the week. There may never be a more accomplished cast of actors ever assembled, and that's a testament to the fact that when it comes to Quentin Tarantino, no stunt-double is required.
Genre: Comedy, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 41 minutes.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Luke Perry, Damon Herriman.
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino ("The Hateful Eight," "Django Unchained," "Inglourious Basterds," "Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2," "Jackie Brown," "Pulp Fiction," "Reservoir Dogs.")
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is in theaters on Friday, July 26th, 2019.
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