Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)
The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino hoves into view with all the usual bombast, pageantry, and controversy, the aging and ostensibly late-career wunderkind never being one to hide his light under a bushel. We’ve come a long way, baby, since a bunch of guys in cheap suits talked about Madonna and shot each other in a disused morgue all the way back in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. There have been ups and downs and sideways, a few regrettable missteps (QT’s repeated attempts to prove he’s an actor like he always wanted to be have never aged well — and they generally weren’t much chop to begin with), but to me it’s unarguable that the kid has still got it. And ‘it,’ in this case, is a singular and unmistakable voice. George Harrison once balked at the idea that, were The Beatles to perform new material while masked, the audience would recognize them within a few notes. I imagine Tarantino would be delighted by the notion that his films are identifiable by the merest few frames. But like it, loathe it, or f*ck it — it’s true.
That voice has returned to tell, as the title indicates a fairy tale, but not one about Old Hollywood or New Hollywood but about the point where one gave way to the other, and how things may or may not have gone differently, both for the real characters he employs here, the fictional ones he’s created, and the wider culture as a whole. Into that are woven a number of different themes, not limited to notions of masculinity, toxic and otherwise; a brief but poignant meditation on cancel culture; a whole lot of love for not just movies but all screen culture and its power to transform and transport us; and all the usual Quentin Tarantino signs and signifiers: there’s a great soundtrack of period hits, pages of crackling dialogue, an assured but idiosyncratic design aesthetic, and several close-ups of women’s bare feet (personally, I tip my hat to any artist happy enough to let their freak flag fly in their output. Would that we were all so bold).
In the specific, Once Upon a Time … is the tale of fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who turfed his TV series, Bounty Law, for a shot at the movies and is deeply regretting it. An offer to do some Westerns in Italy is on the table, but Rick thinks accepting it will prove he’s off the A-list for good.
His best mate and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), has a much more Zen-stoic approach to life: all but blacklisted due to rumors that he murdered his wife (crucially, we are given extremely limited info as to the possible homicide), he lives in a trailer with his faithful dog Brandy and spends his time driving Rick around and bolstering the alcoholic, insecure actor’s self-esteem with the odd homily and constant, good-natured camaraderie.
Coming into their world from an oblique angle are young director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his actress wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whom have just moved in next door to Rick. Rick thinks if he can get an intro, and maybe a role in a Polanski film, his fortunes will be reversed. But, as anyone with a half-decent grasp of Hollywood history knows, 1969 is a very bad year for Rick’s neighbors, and out at the old Spahn Movie Ranch, Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) has gathered a family of devoted followers (Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, Dakota Fanning’s Squeaky Fromme, Austin Butler’s Tex, etc.) …
The awful real-world murders of Tate, her hairdresser friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and everyone else who fell victim to the Manson cult act as a kind of narrative gravity well here. We’re barreling towards the terrible events of August 9, 1969, whether we like it or not, and that provides a weird and unsettling counterpoint to the film’s actual tempo, which is kind of loose and freewheeling. We’re really watching people deal with changes they don’t want to face: Rick grappling with his career status, Cliff with the fact that Rick can’t afford to keep him around anymore, and everyone in the movie industry with the changing nature of entertainment and the wider culture. Change is inevitable, and while we can embrace it, and even force it, we cannot deny it — that, to me, seems to be the underlying message here.
In practice, that means that some of the big hitters, historically and culturally speaking, don’t get much of a look-in. Charlie’s a cameo, more or less; Damian Lewis’ Steve McQueen gets more screen time in a brief interlude at the Playboy Mansion, and that’s more of a fun impersonation than anything else. Still, Charlie’s shadow hangs over the proceedings, which are also illuminated by Tate’s light. Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad (2016), gets more time to shine, but her Sharon Tate is not the focus here, which has drawn some ire from certain quarters. In this film, Tate is a symbol of purity, innocence, healthy sexuality, love, you name it; she may not get many lines of dialogue (give me strength … ), but Tarantino takes great pains to frame her as separate from her death, imbuing her with a vitality that pops off the screen. There’s a scene where Tate goes to watch herself in a schlocky Dean Martin vehicle that’s playing in a local cinema that’s just breathtaking in its simple delight at spending time with Tate as a person in love with her own life.
Did I mention this is mainly a comedy?
Tarantino’s tonal control is masterful, and for all that Once Upon a Time … deals with heady themes and dark deeds its base flavor is that of a persistently funny and occasionally screamingly hilarious buddy comedy. We’re mainly watching Rick and Cliff do their thing, and it’s a blast hanging out with these two. DiCaprio and Pitt — especially Pitt — are at the top of their game here, and Tarantino gives them space to play, to pose, to be cool, which both men embrace with gusto; even when Rick’s being a self-pitying little bitch, which is often, DiCaprio’s sheer glee at playing the character shines through, and that makes him cool. Culturally, we don’t ‘do’ movie stars anymore, with Tom Cruise arguably being the Last Great American Whale, but as a director Tarantino delights in letting actors be stars again, and while Pitt and DiCaprio aren’t in need of the career rehab QT has specialized in before (John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Kurt Russell, et al), the combo of their charisma with Tarantino’s sheer filmic brio is electrifying — the right setting for the right stones.
Once Upon a Time … has a lot of stones, amigo, and a lot to say in its Whitman-like depths, but pithing its viscera at this stage of the game would be doing it — and you — no favors: you just need to see it. This is a great, great film, possibly Tarantino’s best. I could dribble out a string of superlatives here, but what’s the point? See it, on the biggest screen you can find, then see it again, and just drown yourself in some of the finest cinema going right now. Once it’s gone we won’t get it again, but that’s okay: change is inevitable.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson