Quentin Tarantino's latest film is a wild ride through a very specific era of Hollywood's past. We loved it: Read on find out why. The movie comes out this week, so let us know what you think of it in the comments below.
The less you know about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the easier it will be to simply sit back and enjoy it--up to a point. Here's a quick summary that should bring you up to speed: OUATIH is Quentin Tarantino's ninth film, which follows a washed-up TV cowboy and his stunt double in Hollywood during the late 1960s. It's a love letter to what Tarantino clearly believes is the golden age of Hollywood, and if you enjoy Tarantino's work, you should go see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood--full stop.
However, if you already know (or think you know, in this case) that OUATIH is about the Charles Manson cult's murder of Sharon Tate and her friends in the home she shared with director Roman Polanski on the night of August 9, 1969, then your enjoyment of this movie might be compromised. Let me explain.
The problem is that, although Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been hyped up as a movie featuring the infamous Manson family murder, it really isn't the focus. If you're expecting a grisly retelling of the events leading up to Sharon Tate's slaying, you won't get it here. Tate is a character--played by Margot Robbie--but, surprisingly, she's barely in the movie. The Manson cult plays a small part in a few scenes, and Tarantino uses the audience's belief that we know what's coming as a tool--to build tension, to subvert our expectations, and to misdirect our attention.
OUATIH is really about Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, a fictional actor who once played Jake Cahill on the fictional hit TV western Bounty Law, but now takes odd guest star roles as villainous "heavies" to be killed off by heroic younger actors. Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth joins him as Dalton's stunt double, driver, handyman, and best friend. This movie is about the end of an era in Hollywood--an era Tarantino clearly misses, despite having been six years old when, in the early morning hours of August 9, 1969, it reached an abrupt and bloody end. The Manson cult's activities are a subplot, their presence simply another nail for the coffin lowering Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth--TV cowboys past their prime--into the dusty ground.
The film is a mishmash of styles. Scenes between DiCaprio and Pitt play like a buddy comedy, while at other times the movie simply follows an entire day in Rick Dalton's life as a professional guest star. We watch Dalton shoot an episode of the (very real) TV show Lancer as if we're simply watching that show, then see Dalton beat himself up in his trailer between scenes over getting too drunk the night before. Once Upon spends ample time in flashbacks and asides, as well--at one point, Booth sits on Dalton's roof and recalls a whole day spent on another show's set, including a humorous confrontation with Bruce Lee (a strangely unflattering scene for the latter--wonder what Tarantino's beef with Bruce Lee is?). The flashback goes on so long, you're liable to forget it's a flashback at all, and it's jarring when the film returns to the "present."
As Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie is mostly enshrined here, hardly feeling like a real person at all, but more a glorified embodiment of innocence and beauty--which maybe is alright in this case, because she's not what the movie is really about, and her presence mainly adds to the atmosphere. At one point, she goes to a theater and simply watches herself in the 1968 Dean Martin comedy The Wrecking Crew. Notably, although the movie occasionally inserts DiCaprio's likeness into old movies and such, the Sharon Tate we see onscreen in Wrecking Crew is actually Tate. Small touches like that add to the simple, pervasive sadness that flows under the entire movie, right up through the credits.
If it sounds like OUATIH lacks focus, it's because it does--the movie lumbers unhurriedly from scene to scene, seeming to linger wherever Tarantino felt like expanding on a conversation, set piece, or idea. It opens at a seemingly random point in time, then later jumps forward six months, with sporadic and randomly inserted narration from Kurt Russell--who also plays a stunt director on one of Dalton and Booth's sets--filling in the gaps. But the movie works, thanks mainly to the chemistry and commitment of DiCaprio and Pitt. They don't exactly disappear into these roles, but the two legends somehow completely embody their characters in spite of that. They both seem larger than life, even when one struggles to keep it together and the other lives in a nasty old trailer and eats macaroni and cheese from a box.
The whole movie seems to be Tarantino's attempt to convince himself that the era he worships had real, tangible value beyond the superficial remembrance of figures past their prime. These two aging Hollywood cowboys aren't worthless just because the world is leaving them behind. Dalton and Booth remain sympathetic characters, even when we glimpse their darker sides--much like the era itself. And that's clearly how Tarantino wanted it.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is much more than a retelling of certain events--in fact, it fails spectacularly at being that. But it succeeds immensely at being a fairy tale--a recounting of a time and place, an attempt to capture the essence of Hollywood's golden age, one that came to an end in 1969--but, maybe for Tarantino, never really ended at all.