Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant

Rating: [4/5]

Filmmaking in Hollywood goes through different cycles for various reasons whether it be audience interest or real-world events. During and after wartime, there’s a necessity for uplifting stories that make people be proud of their nation and who they can be at their best. As these waves change, it’s up to the filmmakers and stars to adapt or get left behind. 

Set in 1969, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggles with his current career trajectory as he no longer gets the work he received in the 50s where he famously portrayed Jake Cahill in the popular TV series, Bounty Law. He takes on smaller gigs as the heavy on other series, while accompanied by his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). While they get involved in their shenanigans, a young Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) lives her promising young life as a Hollywood starlet.

As with any film by Tarantino, controversy will surround the work because of the subject matter he chooses to highlight or the way he executes it. Leading up to its release, this film received the label of being about Charles Manson and the fears surrounding the story centered on the potential insensitivity towards the horrifying murder of Sharon Tate. While the way the film unfolds will be debated furiously, the way it all comes together in my estimation culminates in a tremendous work of art about friendship and the ray of light Sharon Stone represented in the industry. 

The characters in this film drive much of its greatness because of the excellent writing that Tarantino provides, which is to be expected. The best being Rick Dalton portrayed by DiCaprio. Leo has certainly become one of the most famous actors in the world but he tends to play the same type of character and relies on doing the same type of yelling in all of his roles. He’s great but what he does in this film transcends to another level and it may be his best performance to date. DiCaprio seems to give his best performances when teaming with Tarantino as this performance matches up with his evil portrayal of Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. Rick Dalton has such deep insecurity that everything he does in the film becomes unintentionally hilarious. This story comes jam-packed with so many quotable lines about him being a has-been or yelling his hate for hippies. It’s so incredibly funny but the connection he has with his stunt double, Cliff Booth, truly humanizes him as a character. 

Their friendship serves as one of the best bromances ever put on screen and what ultimately makes this film a hangout experience. There are scenes where the two just hang out, whether it be watching television or at a bar that has so much sincerity. They can just be themselves around each other. Cliff shows unconditional support to Rick, even with the latter being on the decline of his career, which makes me want to have a friend like Cliff. Brad Pitt did so well with this character because he can embody the feeling of “cool” without even trying. Pitt has always been a character actor with the body and face of a leading man as shown in his collaborations with the Coen Brothers, Ridley Scott, and Adam McKay. He delivers once again as Cliff Booth and while this may be Rick Dalton’s story, the camera follows the shenanigans of the stunt double, as he gets involved in some dicey situations. 

As exuberant as ever, Margot Robbie portrays Sharon Tate in a role that will be hotly contested. Robbie does not have too many lines of dialogue over the course of the film, but her portrayal of Sharon Tate serves to capture the actor’s aura and the beautiful world she would have created. The pure joy Robbie exhibits playing this character could not help but make me wonder what a world with Sharon Tate living would have looked like. The character exudes joy like a ray of sunshine and the sign of a changing industry that was ushering her in and leaving the likes of Rick Dalton behind. 

Along with the three main characters, an incredible supporting cast of characters was assembled that may have just one scene but add to the story. Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Bruce Dern, the late Luke Perry, and many others. A star-studded cast that each brings something invigorating to the overall narrative. The production design transports the audience into 1960s Hollywood from the signs to the people that embodied that era. Obviously, a very personal to Tarantino as he creates a Hollywood that he saw as a kid and idolized. 

Its beefy nearly 3-hour runtime might not work for everyone, as I described it as a hangout film. If you can connect with those characters and hang with them then you’ll never want the story to end. If not, then the film can be seen as meandering and some have even called it plotless. Mileage may vary and while I think it does drag at times, as an overall story, it feels lived in and complete. It helps that it contains a stellar soundtrack, as with many Tarantino films, that play in the car radios, which seem like a relic in our time. 

There’s much to parse through in the film and I certainly had some issues with the portrayal of certain characters. One certainly includes Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), which has been fiercely debated if it crosses the line to overt stereotyping or played up in fantasy. Tarantino has not been very definitive, but the scenes with him are quite jarring. The ending will create a bit of a divide amongst viewers, especially depending on how one already views Tarantino and his storytelling tendencies. So much there but I love that the film exists because while Rick Dalton entered an era that no longer needs him, this story serves as a reflection for Tarantino, who might be feeling the exact same way. Through the creation of this feature, he contemplates what his place is in the grand scheme of Hollywood in what may be his most personal work to date. 

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