There are no spoilers. Well, I say some things that happen in the film, but nothing not already seen in the trailers and I definitely don’t give away important plot points.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film. It’s about aging television actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth struggling to find work in the late 1960’s. Yet, it’s much more than that. Tarantino seeks to recapture an era of his childhood. Idealized though it may be, there’s something beautiful about this film that will only be yielded on repeat viewings and with the passage of time.
The film invites you to soak in the setting and spend time with the characters, allowing the audience to learn the fictional history of a famous actor with the amount of passion and detail any contemporary would’ve had. Dalton may be Tarantino’s most explored and fleshed out character through his own history. Tarantino literally created an entire actor and an actor’s filmography out of his imagination and DiCaprio’s talent. The asides and flashbacks throughout the film – while possibly being a little clunky – are wonderful little moments that make you fall in love with Rick as you would any actor you adore. Dalton struggles with alcoholism and his own insecurities, and DiCaprio is able to weave in between Dalton’s mannerisms and mood swings with masterful grace.
Rick’s friend Cliff Boothe is also right by his side for most of the film. Cliff is much more of a working-class kind of man. Pitt looks amazing, and his presence brings a relaxed strength that makes this possibly unlovable character and makes him very likable. Cliff is a paradox, capable of being one of the most complex characters of the film while existing as a very simple man while it’s playing out on the screen. He is said to have done terrible things, and he says some awful stuff to some comedic effect, yet he also seems to have a good head on his shoulders and is an amazing friend to Rick. Some of my favorite aspects to reflect on this film are Cliff’s own adventures and lifestyles apart from Rick. We appreciate Rick, but we relate to Cliff. When both are on the screen they have some of the best chemistry ever seen in a Tarantino film. There’s an intimacy between the two left unsaid, yet throughout the film, it’s easy to see and appreciate.
The film has more going on than just the buddy aspect. The other half of the film is about the historical Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski social circle and the events leading up to the Manson Cult’s invasion and murders. Tarantino doesn’t explore Manson or his followers with much effort, instead, Tarantino focuses on letting the audience fall in love with Sharon (played by Margot Robbie) as everyone else around her has. This is probably the most beautiful and selfless part of the film, allowing the audience to see Tate beyond the news stories most are familiar with. We see Robbie’s Sharon live her day to day life, go to parties, buy books, and even watch films. We see the actual Tate on the screen in the theater as Robbie soaks in the screen, and we are just meant to appreciate the moment.
The Manson family is the impending conflict of the film. While most of the film is relaxed, there’s a ticking time bomb of reality eager to turn the fantasy Tarantino’s built into a tragedy. We see the hippies as inheritors of sin (being the only real malevolent and manipulative figures in the film) and the very future that Dalton and other characters fear about. Whenever we spend time with the Manson cult, we see a much darker side of the world and it even brushes with the horror genre at times.
Yet the film is far from horror, and far from a tragedy. Tarantino is able to take this film and shape it around his well-founded style while still doing something new. His aesthetic and pace feel distinctly evolved. In a movie where not a lot happens, everything happens. The little moments and reactions are no longer taken for granted and you appreciate the human interactions every character has. Even his use of dialogue has evolved. In prior films dialogue always felt unrealistic and sometimes static, existing to serve whatever whim Tarantino had for the scene. Here, the setting and class of characters are perfectly suited for his unique diction and cinematic vocabulary. The music he regularly returns to in his films is rooted in the setting. Sixties rock music is used throughout, and never feels inappropriate. Rather, it often properly captures the mood and serves as a companion to many quiet segments (such as Cliff driving).
With this evolution comes some growing pains. For every moment that I feel is innovative or transcendent in the film, there’s another that’s regressive. One moment of fleeting glory will be followed by an ill-suited line or event. This comes from lack of attention in crafting an actual plot for the setting or characters, and the particular indulgences Tarantino is committing himself to: if you’re making a fantasy, is it for an audience, or only yourself? The film suffers when Tarantino attempts to fulfill his own wishes. Certain historical figures are warped, certain themes and plot lines are dropped when he wants his characters to be or do something else a few scenes later. There might be a tad too many indulgences in narration and interactions. Many moments meant to have thematic weight have their meaning told explicitly or are played too much for laughs. This film is also quick to abandon a thread if it feels like it’s spent too long on it.
And the run time and pacing might be the film’s biggest flaws. The moment-to-moment entertainment is focused on the situational drama for the scene and the comedy beats between every line. Sometimes it lands, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the comedy ruins the scene, sometimes the comedy takes a backseat and we can enjoy an entirely new departure for ten or so minutes. Yet, this film is still a blast to see. It’s going to be talked about for years to come, and where it stands is going to depend entirely on time. Yet time may be on this film’s side, because the film’s about coming to terms with the future and realizing that if you want it enough and have the creative spark inside you. History and fate aren’t set in stone, and your dreams can be your reality.