Let’s get this out of the way: It’s virtually impossible to analyze “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” without revealing significant plot points. If you haven’t seen the film and you don’t enjoy a big bowl of frosted spoilers with your morning coffee, please set this review aside and return to it at a later date.
For those who are still with me: What on Earth is Quentin Tarantino doing with history?
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino’s ninth film, is a remarkable, evocative fable that will appeal to some and repel others. The film’s impact depends heavily upon the way each individual approaches the subject matter and how their own personal experience shapes their perception of Tarantino’s treatment of it. Captivating but sometimes clumsy, the film has been praised as a love letter to a bygone era and derided as being exploitative and offensive.
Depending upon your perspective, both camps make valid points.
On the surface, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” follows three primary characters. First, there is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the television Western series “Bounty Law.” After the show was cancelled in 1963, Rick found only limited success in film. By 1969, he is struggling and taking on one-week guest spots on TV dramas — usually playing the villain.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s stunt man and best friend. The two have been attached at the hip since the days of “Bounty Law.” Cliff has no real plans for the future.
The film’s third primary character is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), star of films such as “Valley of the Dolls” and “The Wrecking Crew,” and wife of director Roman Polanski. Unlike Rick and Cliff — who are fictional characters loosely based on real-life individuals — Tate is a historical figure. In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino delivers a relatively accurate and affectionate portrayal of the famous actress and model.
I submit that there is a fourth primary character: the personification of Old Hollywood.
Those familiar with Tarantino films know that the director spends time early in each film introducing his characters through slice-of-life meet-and-greet scenes. Those opening sequences have less to do with the narrative than with revealing meaningful aspects about the character’s psychology.
For nearly two hours, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” does exactly that: It follows Rick as he deals with the fact that he is a has-been in a declining genre. It follows Cliff as he examines a set of deeds and decisions that has left him living in a shabby trailer behind a drive-in movie screen. It follows Sharon as she celebrates her accomplishments and enjoys her status as a celebrity. And it follows Old Hollywood as it faces changing times.
It’s easy — and wrong — to pigeon-hole “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” as some form of documentary, docudrama or a mockumentary. It’s none of the above. It’s a modern fairy tale set in an alternate timeline, populated by familiar historical figures, employing a modified version of known events.
One might expect the conflict propelling the plot to be physical, as in hero vs. bad guy. In fact, the conflict is the struggle to embrace change, made evident by the fleeting nature of fame and the changing face of Hollywood. That conflict eventually manifests itself in a very corporeal manner, with members of Charles Manson’s family acting as chaotic agents of change. The ensuing bloodbath, however, is not the one the audience anticipates.
The film is bursting with excellent performances. Robbie has more screen time than dialogue. Even in silence, she makes Sharon Tate vibrant and real, endearing her to audiences. DiCaprio is at his best and Pitt is outstanding.
I suspect the film’s most vocal detractors have not actually seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or missed the message Tarantino was trying to convey. For those who have seen it and still find it unsettling, insolent or incoherent, I understand and appreciate their point of view. There are real-world issues that muddy any attempt at evaluating Tarantino’s new film. The film’s pacing is so slow that it seems to meander aimlessly at points. Its cinematic landscape is equally lurid and lush. It is excessive and over-indulgent and brilliant and problematic. Its tone ranges from giddy and starry-eyed to wistful and harrowing.
In terms of Tarantino’s filmography, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” isn’t quite the masterpiece it could have been — but I believe it’s his best film since his best film.
Although it differs from his previous films thematically, I see the same trademark nostalgia he is known for here. Instead of focusing on a classic film genre, Tarantino tries to recapture and romanticize the milieu and ambiance of 1960s Hollywood.
Long before the film was even released, there was criticism that it would be disrespectful in its portrayal of real-life figures.
Take Tarantino’s treatment of Bruce Lee, for example. In one scene, Cliff throws the famous actor and martial arts instructor into a car. If you are a die-hard Bruce Lee fan, this probably annoyed you.
I saw that scene — and the film in its entirety — very differently. The scene involving Cliff and Bruce Lee is shown as a flashback sequence narrated by a less than reliable source (Kurt Russell’s Randy, who doesn’t actually see the fight). I don’t think Tarantino meant it to be taken literally. Instead of filming a scene in which Cliff bested Bruce Lee, he opted for a tall tale version in which rumors shape everyone’s perception of the character. He conveys the story about Cliff’s wife the same way — the audience can’t be sure that Cliff killed his wife, but the audience knows that the other characters in the film believe that story to be true (other than Rick).
As for the film’s treatment of Sharon Tate, I see that as far more damning to the Manson family. Tarantino sees the Tate–LaBianca murders as a turning point — the end of 1960s counterculture, the end of Old Hollywood, the end of fairy tales with happy endings. Tarantino obviously has great affection for that era in Hollywood, and this film serves as both a billet-doux and a eulogy. My ultimate takeaway was that although we can fantasize about what might have been, we eventually have to come back to reality and accept what was lost.
Lee Clark Zumpe is entertainment editor at Tampa Bay Newspapers and an author of short fiction appearing in select anthologies and magazines.