Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


In his review of “Inglorious Basterds”, Roger Ebert said “Tarantino films have a way of growing on you. It’s not enough to see them once.”

I have now seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” five times in theaters, consuming more than 13 hours of my life (not counting previews and the like). And I might go see it again. Perhaps that speaks to my opinion on Tarantino’s 9th film more than anything else.

The story takes place in 1969, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, the former star of the fictional NBC Western “Bounty Law” (a combination of real-life western shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun-Will Travel”) who finds himself on the fringes of an ever-changing Hollywood scene. His career trajectory is not too unlike those of James Arness or Richard Boone; TV cowboys struggling to become character actors in a dying genre, a dilemma spelled out for him early on in the film by film producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino); stay in Hollywood and continue to be the bested-baddie on two-bit TV shows, or go to Rome and star in spaghetti Westerns (the film’s name is a homage to Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” after all). Accompanying Dalton is Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, Dalton’s longtime stuntman and self-described “gopher” who drives Dalton around Hollywood and performs menial tasks for the star actor.  Oh, and did I mention Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robie) and Roman Polanski?

If those two names don’t mean much to you, then you might need to do a bit of research as it is imperative you have at least a cursory knowledge of Charles Manson and the Manson family murders before seeing this film. Their actions play an important role in the film, as Cliff, Rick, and Sharon interact with the family prior to their infamous murder spree, the knowledge of which lends to a constant dramatic tension.

  Part buddy comedy, part character drama, part time machine, the film adheres to a day-in-the-life format following the lives of Rick, Cliff, and Sharon. The first two-thirds of this film is strictly characterization (a la “The Big Lebowski”) that, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, would come off as indulgent and boring. But if there are three elements that define Tarantino’s filmography, it’s witty dialogue, a cool sense of style, and feet. And for better or worse, all three are abundantly present here.

Dare I say this is Tarantino’s funniest film. The midnight premiere of it was the hardest I’ve ever laughed in a theater. Pitt and DiCaprio work effortlessly off one another, attaining a chemistry that would rival that of Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winfield and Vincent Vega. It might also be his coolest film. Shot on film (as are all his movies), the world looks rich and feels authentic; just about all the sets are real, right down to the classic cars driven on the Los Angeles Freeways and the dated tube-light restaurant signs. Cliff’s extended driving scenes show off this lifelike recreation of late 60s Hollywood, as well as Tarantino’s killer soundtrack that mixes in the era’s top 40 pop with lesser known cuts featured on the Real Don Steele; everything from Deep Purple and Bob Seeger to Vanilla Fudge and Los Lobos. It’s as much an aural spectacle as it is a visual one, complete with era specific radio advertisements for Hawaiian tanning butter and the new Ray Bradbury novel. In the end, it’s just fun to spend an afternoon with these characters, not to mention how it all pays off with the finale.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is the kind of film that dares you to hope for the future of film, the kind of artistic blockbuster we rarely see in the face of Disney’s cannibalization of its childhood classics and the endless reboot cycle of modern cinema. Rick Dalton’s tale represents the end of Hollywood’s golden age, just as this film may signal an end to the blockbuster visionary. Tarantino may perhaps be the last filmmaker of his kind; dogmatic in his pursuit of his filmmaking vision, skilled enough to make it a reality, and financially bankable enough to receive a big budget. Cherish him before he’s gone.

By the time this reaches publication, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be out of theaters. But if it’s still there, give it a watch. And then give it another. It’s well worth your time (all 2 hours and 40 minutes of it).