Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is many things at once: it’s stylish, nostalgia-soaked, frequently indulgent, and for a good part frustratingly inert. Yet it’s endlessly fascinating. The film is both a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age, and also a daring blend of fact and fiction.
Set in the year 1969, the film allows Tarantino to reference that period’s music, fashion, cool cars, movie stars, and headlines. It’s powered by the filmmaker’s dark humour and explosive violence, and yet there’s something distinctly different about this ninth film of his – it’s unmistakably sentimental. Now there’s a word you don’t usually associate with him!
Ironically it’s got two of the biggest movie stars playing has-been Hollywood types. Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a once popular star best known for television Westerns, now crippled by alcohol and self-doubt. His most loyal, and possibly his only friend is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who’s also his driver and all-round handyman. The men share a close bond. A voice-over describes Booth as “a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife”. When Dalton gets teary that his career is over, Booth gives him his aviators and a pep talk. “You’re Rick fucking Dalton,” he reminds him.
Both actors are in very good form, each offering funny, emotionally complex, layered performances. DiCaprio plays Dalton as always on edge and anxious, while Booth appears quiet and confident. Pitt plays him as a man of a few words. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Booth is fired off the set of The Green Hornet when he gets into a fistfight with an especially vain Bruce Lee.
Faring better than them is Sharon Tate, starlet and wife of film director Roman Polanski who is Dalton’s neighbour in the Hollywood Hills. Margot Robbie is lovely, if a tad underused, as Tate; she radiantly channels the 26-year-old innocent whose star is on the rise. In a charming scene that alas plays out too long, Tate slips into a cinema and takes in the enthusiastic responses to her latest film.
But we already know how the actress’ life was tragically cut short, while eight-and-a-half months pregnant, at the hands of cult leader Charles Manson’s ‘followers’. So naturally we spend a good part of the film waiting to see how Tarantino will wrap up things. I’m not going to spoil anything for you on that front, except to say that it’s outrageous, unpredictable, and oddly satisfying.
But despite so much going on, the film’s pacing is problematic. You will find yourself getting especially restless in the first hour where very little actually happens. There is a sliver of a plot, but at times it seems as if Tarantino has merely strung together a collection of entertaining scenes and moments that feel complete unto themselves, but never key to the fabric of the story.
Also the film has plenty (and I mean plenty!) references to old films and television shows that the filmmaker presumably loves. We get long scenes of movies within the movie, which are tiring ultimately as they amount to little more than Tarantino indulging his inner geek.
Yet, all said and done, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a violent, often funny, but always heartfelt valentine to a specific time and place. Robert Richardson’s artful photography, the evocative production design, and fleeting appearances by legendary characters of the day transport you to a bygone era of Hollywood glamour that proves hard to resist. The film may not be Tarantino’s best, but it’s a laidback, change-of-pace offering that delivers many unexpected pleasures.