***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.
- 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)