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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Review

July 25, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Image Credit: Sony Pictures
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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Review  

Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 161 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references

Leonardo DiCaprio – Rick Dalton
Brad Pitt – Cliff Booth
Margaret Qualley – Pussycat
Margot Robbie – Sharon Tate
Al Pacino – Marvin Schwarzs
Kurt Russell – Randy
Emile Hirsch – Jay Sebring
Timothy Olyphant – James Stacy
Mike Moh – Bruce Lee
Damian Lewis – Steve McQueen
Lorenza Izzo – Francesca Capucci
Bruce Dern – George Spahn
Dakota Fanning – Squeaky Fromme
Lena Dunham – Gypsy
Austin Butler – Tex
Victoria Pedretti – Lulu
Rumer Willis – Joanna Pettet
Damon Herriman – Charles Manson
Luke Perry – Wayne Maunder
Rafal Zawierucha – Roman Polanski
Nicholas Hammond – Sam Wanamaker

Quentin Tarantino’s latest picture, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a nostalgic romp, set over the course of a few days in 1969 Los Angeles. It’s a fictionalized story about fictional characters in the entertainment industry existing adjacent to real-life actors and events who are also depicted in the film. Incidentally, 1969 was also a time in Hollywood of the Manson Family murders.

1969 is essentially a pivotal year for the once prominent western TV actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio). Rick’s show was canceled, and his hopes of a meteoric movie career have dried up. Now, the best Dalton can achieve is one-off guest spots as the villain on other television programs and pilots. Or, he can take up the offer of a persuasive Hollywood dealmaker, Marvin Schwarzs (Pacino), to go to Italy and make Spaghetti westerns, which Dalton considers a disgrace and the potential death knell of his career.

Living next door to Dalton is none other than superstar director Roman Polanski (Zawierucha) and his young, rising starlet wife, Sharon Tate (Robbie). The scenes of Dalton mulling over his declining career are juxtaposed with sequences of Polanski and Tate enjoying their surging stardom, attending opulent parties at the Playboy Mansion, and interacting socially with some of the brightest stars in town, such as Steve McQueen (Lewis). Dalton’s biggest projects were mid-level successes at best. Dalton’s best days in the biz are behind him, while Tate is on the verge of becoming a bonafide global movie star.

One of the best qualities of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is his vivid creation of a living, breathing, romantic, oddly idyllic version of Los Angeles in the late ’60s. The screening for the film was projected in 35mm, which improved the authenticity and immersion of the cinematic experience. This is quite possibly the most immersive film of Tarantino’s career. It’s a transportation to a Hollywood of yesteryear, fictionalized or not. Good films should truly immerse the audience and transport viewers to that world displayed onscreen. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood easily fits that mold.

Rather than spotlighting the Manson Family and their surroundings, Tarantino mainly focuses on Dalton and his relationship with his buddy, handyman, driver, and sometimes-stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt). Cliff Booth bears a closer resemblance to the type of men Dalton and his contemporaries always tried to emulate in their era. Despite a somewhat suspect background, Cliff appears to be a very pragmatic and reliable person. Cliff makes sure Dalton makes his call times despite the declining TV star’s heavy drinking. It’s an amusing bromance.

DiCaprio and Pitt deliver strong, convincing performances in their respective roles of Dalton and Booth. Their relationship is very believable. The characters blend well into the period. At 55 years old, Pitt’s physique will give men half of his age and Tom Cruise a run for their money. Dalton and Booth are both flawed individuals, but they both possess a rugged charm and likability. For Dalton, it comes through in his vulnerability. Some of the damage Dalton is dealt is self-inflicted, but he tries and struggles so hard that he comes off as an underdog.

The film raises the question of why someone like Cliff Booth even puts up with the likes of Rick Dalton. The obvious implication is that Cliff Booth has lived the life that Hollywood movie stars attempt to play onscreen, and Booth can do all the things that they merely pretend to do on the big screen. Movie stars are pretenders. Actors play make-believe, while Booth is more than likely the genuine article. The answer is a bit murky, but there is a sense that Dalton genuinely respects Booth and tries to help him continue working when Booth has become blacklisted in the industry over rumors and gossip.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is certainly well made. Along with the immersive, nostalgic snapshot of 1969 LA, Tarantino has always been very good at putting his stamp on his productions. There are so few directors at this point that have a trademark style. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood certainly maintains Tarantino’s unique flair.

One particular drawback is the film’s whopping 161-minute runtime. There is nothing wrong with a long movie. However, there is one overwrought flashback sequence that contains a flashback within a flashback. Whenever that happens, no matter the film or the filmmaker, it’s a bit much. At the very least, it’s not a character remembering something they were not privy to or were not even there for, but the movie is still on the long side. Tarantino favors longer takes, and he lets scenes breathe. Sometimes that’s fine. Other times, some scenes come off as rather perfunctory.

Tarantino dialogue can also be an acquired taste. His dialogue tends to have a unique interplay and cadence. There is banter here that comes off as misplaced and out-of-sync with the period setting. One scene of dialogue, in particular, sounds like Tarantino is having a go at his own staunchest critics. In addition, multiple characters appear for one scene with only sparse lines of dialogue, and then they are gone. That seems like a waste in the case of certain performers.

The presence of the Manson Family, Charles Manson (Herriman) and other people involved with one of Hollywood’s darkest tragedies are slightly misleading. Tarantino acknowledges and pays slight homage to the people and history of those surrounding events. However, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is not a story about the Manson family. It’s the story of a struggling actor, and how his Hollywood dreams are on the verge of coming to an end. As the title suggests, it’s imbued with a sense of fairytale-like whimsy, with a dark edge, as well as some brutal depictions of violence for which Tarantino is known.

Without getting into spoilers, the film causes intense ambivalence with its treatment of certain events. Some may not even take issue with their depiction. For better or worse, Tarantino is true to his vision of a Hollywood fairytale.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Quentin Tarantino's unique style is on full display for Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. That might make it a masterpiece to some or veritable trash to others. Overall, it's a good film with superlative acting performances that's well made and creates an authentic, immersive atmosphere of an idolized, nostalgic 1969 Los Angeles. The movie runs too long even when one can appreciate Tarantino's penchant for long takes and letting scenes breathe. Mileage may vary, but this is definitely a film that movie lovers should watch at least once in the cinemas. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood was a far more enjoyable, superior experience than some of Tarantino's past works, such as Inglorious Basterds and Death Proof.