Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Movie Review

***There are light spoilers contained in this review. Nothing here should adversely affect your viewing experience, but if you wish to go in totally clean, you may wish wait until watching it.

fairy tale

noun

  • something resembling a fairy tale in being magical, idealized, or extremely happy

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is this writer/director’s version on that definition. It’s certainly hinted at in the title. There’s little doubt that this is his idealized view of a Hollywood that was indeed magical in his eyes. The picture takes place over a period of six months in 1969 as the movie business is undergoing a seismic shift in attitude befitting the era. Films like Easy Rider with their independent and counter culture spirit have overtaken big budget musicals and other weary genre exercises. Young hotshot directors like Roman Polanski are hot off acclaimed stateside debuts like Rosemary’s Baby.

Mid level TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself at a crossroads. He had a hit western in the 1950s called “Bounty Law”. Years later, he’s primarily cast as the heavy in weekly episodic serials. He doesn’t find it particularly rewarding and he hates the idea of hippies populating his industry. His schmaltzy agent (Al Pacino) wants him to go Italy to shoot low budget spaghetti westerns. Rick sees it as a career death knell.

There is one constant in Rick’s life besides an endless supply of booze. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his trusty stunt double who’s been with him for years. In this fairy tale, Cliff represents the extremely happy. While Rick often hilariously and sometimes touchingly fusses and frets over his standing in the business, Cliff is happy go lucky. This seems, in part, to stem from the fact that he may have gotten away with offing his nagging wife. Guilty or not so, he’s just as happy performing menial household tasks for Rick as he is falling off horses or doing dangerous car stunts.

Another example of the extremely happy is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Her and her aforementioned virtuoso hubby Roman Polanski have just moved next door to Rick. She seems to walk on air in her new world of Tinsel Town bliss and is a stunning breeze of fresh air to any room she enters. While Rick is floundering, Sharon is perpetually adorned with a glass slipper.

Of course, we the audience know the real life happenings that ended Sharon’s life in the Hollywood hills. While Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) is giving little screen time himself, notable members of his cult are. They make the acquaintance of Cliff, who ends up at the Spahn ranch in a deliciously climactic and anticlimactic sequence. The primary cult member is Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley in a standout performance that is both unnerving and charming.

The events of the Manson murders are handled in a manner in which perhaps only this filmmaker could get away with. Inglourious Basterds lovers take note. The Manson aspect is not the main focus at all. Yet when it’s time for that fateful night, it’s handled in an audacious manner that is right in Tarantino’s violent wheelhouse.

That said, as it pertains to screen time, this is probably the director’s least bloody offering to date. Hollywood is more about spending leisurely time with these characters. You get the feeling that Tarantino would have killed to hang out with them fifty years ago, particularly Rick and Cliff. The actors playing them are terrific. DiCaprio has the more complex role as he battles his demons and his battered ego. Pitt’s Cliff is a simpler man, but his work here is every bit equal to DiCaprio’s. Robbie is a ray of sunshine. Her scene where she visits a movie theater playing one of her pics is joyful to witness (and kudos to Tarantino for using the real footage of Tate). Supporting players are too numerous to mention, but it’s always great to see frequent collaborator Kurt Russell in anything. And Mike Moh warrants mention for an uncanny impression of Bruce Lee.

An argument could be made that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin’s “slowest” picture. Due to his intense interest in the late 1960s era where he came of age in Southern California, it could also be said that it’s his most personal. Sometimes personal is code for self indulgent. My take? Getting to indulge in his words and creations is a luxury. Taking the time to savor his characters and the situations he puts them in is endlessly entertaining. This could be called a dark fairy tale when considering its maker. I’d say it’s more melancholy upon completion as this visionary artist contemplates what could have been in his most treasured model of Hollywood.

**** (out of four)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Box Office Prediction

Director Quentin Tarantino and star Leonardo DiCaprio both return to the silver screen for the first time in three and a half years with the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood next weekend. Set in the late 1960s, Mr. Tarantino’s latest casts DiCaprio as a washed up TV actor with Brad Pitt as his longtime stunt double. The sprawling supporting players include Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Damian Lewis, the late Luke Perry, Damon Herriman, Mike Moh, Zoe Bell, and Al Pacino.

When Hollywood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it did so to reviews expected of its director. The Rotten Tomatoes score is at 92% and it could attract Oscar attention. The teaming of DiCaprio (in his first role since his Oscar winning turn in The Revenant) and Pitt and the many Tarantino followers certainly have given this a high profile.

In order to achieve its maker’s largest all-time three day start, Hollywood would need to top the $38 million made by Inglourious Basterds ten years ago. However, that’s a bit of a misnomer. 2012’s Django Unchained opened over Christmas and took in $30 million from Friday to Sunday. Yet it made $63 million over its expanded holiday rollout.

The range here is pretty wide. It’s feasible that Hollywood doesn’t quite reach that high 30s threshold. I think it gets there with a just a few hundred thousand to spare.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opening weekend prediction: $38.7 million

Oscar Watch: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

25 years ago today, Quentin Tarantino’s second feature Pulp Fiction held its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Today saw the Riviera unveiling of his ninth – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The black comedy casts Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a movie star and his stunt double, respectively. Set in 1969, Hollywood also focuses on the Manson murders with Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. The sprawling supporting cast includes Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, the late Luke Perry, Margaret Qualley, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Emile Hirsch, and Al Pacino.

Slated to hit screens stateside on July 26, it’s fair to say this is the most eagerly anticipated Cannes debut of 2019. Some reviews from the festival are glowing and that’s not unexpected when it comes to Mr. Tarantino. Others, while positive, indicate it’s not quite the masterpiece that Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds are. Both of those pics (and 2012’s Django Unchained) nabbed Best Picture nods.

Based on early buzz, I expect Hollywood to do the same with a strong possibility that its director gets a nomination as well. He will almost certainly be honored for his Original Screenplay. As for performances, both DiCaprio and Pitt are being lauded. I’m not certain at this point whether both will be campaigned for in lead Actor. A split (meaning Pitt in Supporting Actor) could increase the chances of both getting in. Margot Robbie is also getting raves and could certainly factor into Supporting Actress.

Bottom line: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been looked at as a contender since it was announced. Today’s happenings in France confirm it. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…