Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film from revered American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. The story follows several individuals in 1969 as the American film industry transitions from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood—also, the infamous Manson Murders fit into this narrative but that is not worth delving into at this very moment. I was lucky enough to catch the first screening of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at Tarantino’s local New Beverly Cinema, which is a fun experience in its own right. As for the movie itself, I have either liked or loved all of the Tarantino films that I have seen so far so I hoped to either like or love this new one, and thankfully it does not disappoint.
Love him or hate him, each Tarantino movie is incredibly well made and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception. The direction, cinematography, and editing in this film just screams 1969 and I might have to see it again so that I can truly analyze all three elements and more. The way Tarantino shoots this movie makes me almost forget that he made it; that is how subversive Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is compared to his other films. So much time and resources must have also gone into perfecting the sets and make-up of this highly authentic 60s period piece, so much so that Tarantino transports you to this time and seeing the film in 35mm probably helped. The director once again puts together a killer soundtrack. This time with so many classic 60s songs that I will jam out to for a long time. In fact, I could possibly buy the sound a physical CD before I leave Los Angeles.
Tarantino also continues to grab amazing performances out of his actors. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fantastic (possibly even best) performance as the film’s lead Rick Dalton, a fading Hollywood actor who has become out of touch with the industry that birthed him. Sure, this type of story has already been covered in many other movies such as Birdman but the era that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in and DiCaprio’s excellent performance as the egotistic yet distressed Dalton makes this character arc all the more captivating. One scene in particular with Rick and a little girl played by Julia Butters, who has a promising career ahead of her, made me laugh and somehow feel sad as well. This scene alone should guarantee Leo an Oscar nomination, and possibly a win, for Best Lead Actor.
Brad Pitt is also terrific as Rick’s laidback yet prepared best friend/stuntman Cliff Booth. It’s a role I can tell he had fun playing and his chemistry with DiCaprio is amazing to the point where I wonder why these two haven’t already worked together in more movies. Part of this chemistry may come down to Tarantino’s magnificent dialogue. Similar to the rest of his filmography, Tarantino’s dialogue sounds so natural that I’m unsure whether or not these lines were improvised. That sort of magic is why Tarantino is my favorite screenwriter if not up there.
Margot Robbie is great as the lovely real-life actress Sharon Tate, who was tragically slaughtered by the followers of rock star-turned-cult leader Charles Manson when she was twenty-six and pregnant, even if her character could have used more development. Tarantino added two more minutes of Tate to the theatrical cut after a critic at Cannes complained about her supposed lack of on-screen dialogue in that cut. To paraphrase a Vulture article from Bilge Ebiri about Tate’s role in the film, Robbie’s performance leaves a lasting impression but is not significant enough to give closure to Tate when one of the events in the movie ultimately defined her legacy.
The rest of the cast includes Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, and the late Luke Perry among other well-known actors. Their roles range from supporting players to small cameos and they all at least do a good job. Some of the cameos, however, do not seem necessary, especially Mike Moh as famed Hong Kong-American actor and martial arts instructor Bruce Lee. So many people talked about Lee’s appearance in the teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and I wouldn’t consider this cameo to be disrespectful, partially because of how entertaining it is. The problem was that it didn’t add anything to the story. I would like to know if his scenes in the final cut were the full extent of his appearance because if they were, then talk about a disappointment.
The screenplay of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is its more flawed element but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still mostly great. Due to my high anticipation for this movie, I tried to go into it without knowing much. One of the headlines I saw for the film was that it is Tarantino’s most “sensitive” film. Obviously, I would have to see the movie myself before I can confirm or deny this statement. Keeping in mind one of the film’s controversial subject matters, I can safely say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of if not the most restrained Tarantino movies I have ever seen. Many classic movie references and artistic trademarks of this director are still in the film, but they are usually more subtle and fit with both the story and time period. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood even makes fun of the retro cinema that Tarantino holds so close to his heart. As for how the film portrays the Manson murders, all I will say is that the event is handled more respectfully than most Hollywood directors could handle this topic while keeping the movie itself mostly humorous—ironic, I know. The fact that the least violent Tarantino film in recent memory is still incredibly violent says a lot about his career. The issues I have with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are few, but they are significant enough to keep the movie from being “perfect” in my eyes. This film goes by surprisingly quickly at a two hour and forty-one-minute runtime but can still drag at points, specifically towards the end. On a related note, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings up plot points that are either unaddressed or don’t have a satisfying conclusion. I would like to know what Tarantino left on the cutting room floor and if that material would have potentially made the movie better. Speaking of the ending, it’s one that I am unsure about on my initial viewing and can see it dividing moviegoers similar to how the ending of The Hateful Eight divided moviegoers.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not my favorite Tarantino movie but it is still a movie that I would absolutely recommend and is a movie that I hope to see again in theaters. The excellent era-appropriate filmmaking and memorable performances mostly make up the screenplay’s shortcomings and even out to a fun time at the cinema. If Tarantino doesn’t write and direct an R-rated Star Trek or Kill Bill: Vol. 3 (the latter seems more likely), I would not be surprised if he ends his filmmaking career with this movie.