Once Upon A Time in Hollywood a faithful tribute to old Hollywood

August 23, 2019

The last Sunday of the summer at 7 PM was the time a group of friends and I elected to go out and see the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was either that or the Dora movie so I was elated. I went into the theater knowing next to nothing about the movie, only having seen a poster of it and knowing offhand that it was set in the 1960s.

My expectations were based off my love for Tarantino’s previous movies, which have both broken and defined genres in film. I was not disappointed, Once Upon is a fine addition to the acclaimed director’s cinema anthology.

More famous critics have labeled this Tarantino’s “love letter to ‘60s Hollywood” and that’s certainly what it is. Any proper review of Once Upon must be prefaced with this warning. It’s easy for those unfamiliar with the movie’s tidal wave of pop culture references to become lost in what can seem like inconsequential plot threads and characters introduced only to suddenly vanish from the narrative.

As much as it pains me to sound like an elitist saying this, it’s not a movie for everyone. Even die-hard Tarantino fans will find this comedy-drama to be vastly different from his earlier and more action-oriented works such as Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Bastards. But if you’re nostalgic for the era of counterculture, hippies, classic rock and roll, muscle cars and Richard Nixon, then this is the film for you.

Academy Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, an actor famous for his lead role in the ‘50s television western series Bounty Law. It’s now 1969, and he finds the glory days of his career have slipped away from him. Brad Pitt co-stars as Cliff Booth, Rick’s longtime friend and stunt double who cannot find work elsewhere because of a persistent rumor that he murdered his own wife.

The chemistry between these two in their roles is nothing short of phenomenal. Rick’s neurotic, self-loathing and anxious personality contrasts beautifully with Cliff’s laid-back, affable and loyal nature. This is easily some of the best work DiCaprio and Pitt have done in their entire careers; they fit into their roles so well it’s one of the rare instances where I don’t mentally refer to their characters by the name of the famous actor playing them.

Alongside Rick and Cliff are a colorful variety of other characters, both historical and fictional, all weaving into the unconventional narrative of the film. The central plot thread revolves around Rick trying to reignite his acting career by guest-starring on an episode of the TV western Lancer.

However, the other plot threads unexpectedly concern the Manson family—an actual cult centered around Charles Manson, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1971 for orchestrating the murders of seven people. One of these plot threads primarily involves Sharon Tate, played by the excellent Margot Robbie. Historically, Tate was an actress famous for her role in The Wrecking Crew and was one of the Manson family’s victims along with her unborn child.

The plot threads converge in the narrative’s ahistorical ending, the inherent nature of which is one of the film’s several controversies. There are many ways to thematically interpret the ending. Tarantino has stated his belief that the Tate murders represented for him and many others the end of the Hollywood golden age and the generation of actors and filmmakers to which the film’s ensemble of characters belong.

Symbolically, it represents a wrong made hypothetically right for Tarantino. In this regard, it resembles the ahistorical assassination of Adolf Hitler and his inner circle by the Jewish protagonists of Tarantino’s earlier Inglorious Bastards.

There are others who would claim the ending’s excesses are in poor taste or otherwise disrespect the victims of the Tate murders, all of which are completely valid complaints. Whether or not you, the viewer, will find the conclusion of Once Upon offensive or not is based on how you personally interpret it.

As is characteristic of Tarantino’s directing style, dialogue is used heavily as a means to advance the plot and build characters. The lines are not as well written as they possibly could be, or even as well as those in some of Tarantino’s other work. But on the whole, it feels authentic.

Scenes of plot advancement are intercut with cinematographically stunning scenes of characters driving around faithfully recreated 1969 LA with period music from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and Deep Purple playing on the radio. This synthesizes with the amazing attention to detail with costume design and other technical aspects to lend the film a dreamlike aesthetic I’ve only ever seen with few other movies.

Perhaps Once Upon’s greatest flaw, esotericism aside, is its tendency to drag its heels through its 160-minute runtime. You get through a solid half of the movie before any true development is made in the plot. Excellent tension is built up in the second half of the film leading into the conclusion, but unlike with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it does not hold itself up the second time watching when you’re aware of what’s coming. This all contributes to what I would call a low level of rewatchability.

If watching the nostalgic passion project of a middle-aged white male director I’ve been fawning over for 12 paragraphs now doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then I am by no means shaming you. This movie is not for everyone. But, in short, if you’re interested in the flamboyant period of Hollywood history in which this is set and have an eye for good performances and nice camera shots, then do yourself a favor and go see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

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