Film Review – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Quentin Tarantino is back for his (supposedly) penultimate film. After a short spree of two Westerns, Tarantino is now tackling the Hollywood of 1969. Steve McQueen is still being cool, Bruce Lee is still kicking ass, and — oh, yeah — Charles Manson is orchestrating a slew of murders. It’s a very interesting spread of characters and ideas in Tarantino’s latest world. Fortunately, the famed director once again proves he can juggle a lot of cool nonsense with the greatest of ease. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is here to take us back to 1969.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a has-been. After a successful TV and Movie run, Dalton struggles to find any serious work. Because of this downturn, Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt) is stuck to filling the role of a handy man. While Rick struggles to reignite his spark under the tutelage of Marvin Schwarzs (Pacino), Cliff finds himself entangled with a strange hippy (Qualley).
Amid Rick’s career troubles, he receives a new neighbor in the form of Roman Polanski and his new wife, Sharon Tate (Robbie). As Dalton’s career flounders, Tate’s career takes off. However, this takes off is accompanied by increasing uneasiness in the form of Charles Manson’s infamous family.
I haven’t been a devoted Tarantino fanatic for long. Growing up, he was always a forbidden figure in my household. I knew who he was, mainly because Inglourious Basterds was an inescapable hit on TV and as the internet grew in popularity late last decade. Still, Tarantino was a forbidden fruit, accessible only to my older (by seven years) brother. Thankfully, I was able to enter R-rated movies by myself once The Hateful Eight released in 2015. And so began an adoration for one of the most self-indulgent, unique, and auteur directors out there. This adoration is only further encouraged by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Tarantino is the most unique director out there. Why? Simply because he is one of the most recognizable directors on the scene, despite never having created anything that wasn’t uniquely his own vision. Even Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton, two of the most recognizable (well-known) and unique directors out there didn’t get to where they are now without playing the studio game a little (See Batman). However, Tarantino doesn’t play the studio game, yet he’s still managed to gross over a billion at the global box office.
Quentin Tarantino is unique in the fact that he creates what he wants to create. Ever since Pulp Fiction took the world, Tarantino has been mostly unrestrained in his filmmaking. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception to this uniqueness. Tarantino’s figurative middle finger is once again turned towards the industry in a manner that only he is capable of pulling off.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to the silver age of cinema. Not only that, but it is a love letter to the Los Angeles of the era. The film falls within the veins of Hail, Caesar! and The Nice Guys in this respect. Yet, this is Tarantino’s ideal, revisionist Hollywood. The world here is familiar but strange. Unlike Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained, the audience is familiar with many of these characters. Tarantino still gets to play revisionist, but he tows a much narrower line because of the recognizability of the history he is revising.
In a decade where every new movie or TV show seems like a nostalgia bomb, Tarantino manages to balance nostalgia with something fresh. This stems from the simple fact that Tarantino has been breaking the rules and adding his own flair to cinema for almost thirty years. The film is also careful not to get too caught up into the stars and culture of the day. By keeping the story focused primarily on Rick and Cliff, Tarantino manages to keep the world new and the story surprising.
While Tarantino’s films usually have heavy elements of dark comedy, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first to feel openly comedic. This movie is hilarious and is carried greatly by the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt. The film also pulls some great comedic talent from Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, and even Bruce Dern. This film is much more light-hearted and fun than anything Quentin Tarantino has done before. Even with film number nine, Tarantino is still finding ways to push himself creatively. That push is palpable in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it helps to make it very endearing.
This is arguably my favorite Leonardo DiCaprio performance. Ever. While he no doubt has more dramatic and intense roles than that of Rick Dalton, not even Jack from Titanic is this engaging. DiCaprio really pulls off the larger than life persona that actors in the silver age have in the minds of us plebians. Yet, Rick Dalton is also a real guy dealing with normal guy stuff. Rick’s love life sucks, he has no career prospects, and he is filled with self-loathing.
What makes Rick especially interesting is that he doesn’t exactly do much over the course of the film. His main activities include drinking and guest-acting on someone else’s TV show. Yet, Dalton manages to have these gritty conversations that really dig at who he is as a character. Part of this is due simply because that’s how Tarantino writes. However, a lot of this depth comes from the fact that DiCaprio is quite simply one of the best in the business.
As typical of a Tarantino film, there are lots of cameos. This time, however, it isn’t just Tarantino’s usual gang of supporters. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is unique in the sense of its cameos of celebrities playing other celebrities. Aside from Charles Manson and Roman Polanski, there are at least a dozen other historical figures of Hollywood. Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen even appear via these cameos. The Bruce Lee fights Brad Pitt scene alone is worth the price of admission.
Over the Top
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is simultaneously the most and least over-the-top Tarantino film. It’s a wacky and polished 1969, but it’s also a grounded story about two friends just trying to figure out life together. It is also the least violent of Tarantino’s movies. This is a bit surprising since it fixates partially around the Manson family murders, but this minor pacifism fits the story well. Yes, you’ll still get your insane actions scenes and violent dismemberment, but you have to be more patient with it than you do Tarantino’s other eight films.
If you like Quentin Tarantino, you’ll love Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If you despise Quentin Tarantino, you’ll probably despise this movie too. Personally, I think this might be my favorite of his body of work. It’s fast, it’s fun, and it deviates enough from formula to be fresh. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to Old Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino himself, and the art of making movies. Hopefully, Quentin doesn’t actually retire after film #10, because his stories are still just too much fun.
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