Movie Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Mike Moh

Plot: Rick Dalton and his stunt double/gopher Cliff Booth are being forced to confront the end of their careers in Hollywood at a time when the film industry itself is entering a transitional period. On the other hand their new neighbour, Sharon Tate, is on the way to becoming a major film star. All the while there is a dark presence looming on the edge of their lives.

Review: It would appear that film-marker and professional podophilist Quentin Tarantino has shot himself in the foot. When you walk in to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood you either already know the story of Sharon Tate or you don’t, and that distinction will determine whether you clue in to Tarantino’s intention or not. There’s an assumption that you know the story of Tate, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, and the film can’t explain it in the context of its story without making a complete mess of things. If you don’t know the history maybe mosey over to the Wikipedia page first.

Now that you’re all caught up, let’s take a look at the film proper. Tarantino has crafted a period piece recreating 1969 Hollywood, the tail end of the Western as a major audience draw and the end of a generation of performers, soon to be replaced with method actors and beatniks. We spend a couple of days in the life of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a spluttering, stuttering TV and movie star with a delicate ego, and his friend Cliff (Pitt), a stoic stuntman with a rumoured dark past.

Dalton is upset and anxious about his fading celebrity status and is uncertain about his future, leading him to consider flying to Rome to take lead roles in Spaghetti Westerns (which involves a sneaky link to Inglorious Basterds). We see him drinking heavily and acting in a TV show, giving us a cross-section of the Hollywood film industry. Cliff drives him around a runs errands for him, crossing paths with Pussycat (Qualley). This flower child takes him out to the ranch where she lives with a collective of hippies who don’t seem to be especially welcoming. While all this is happening we follow Sharon Tate (Robbie), her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and friend Jay Sebring (Hirsch) as they party at the Playboy Mansion and enjoy celebrity life in Hollywood. All these plot threads eventually come to a head on one fateful night.

For the most part we’re simply drifting along with Rick and Cliff as they go about their days. Tarantino is known for indulgent, long-winded sequences and these habits continue in Once Upon…, which we’re just fine with. He maintains his extremely high quality of dialogue, cinematography and the ability to coax brilliant and fun performances from this actors. I’m always happy to buy a ticket to see Tarantino’s indulgences. If you’ve been impatient with these tendencies in his previous films you’ll likely find this intolerable. On the other hand, it looks like everyone is having a blast making this movie.

This isn’t to say that it’s all pointless. Everything that we learn about the characters comes into play during the startling and brutal final act. The way that every detail of the character’s skills and backstory rolls out in the final sequence is like watching a heist movie explain how everything was pulled off. Also, who doesn’t love Cliff preparing dinner for his faithful dog Brandy. Some of the side-stories, such as Cliff getting on the bad side of Bruce Lee (Moh), showcase Tarantino at his best.

As with many of his films we get appearances from all kinds of legendary actors and cult favourites. These include Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant and Luke Perry in a final performance filmed before his death. DiCaprio and Pitt are at the top of their game throughout the film, with Pitt being especially entertaining and the somewhat mysterious Cliff. Margot Robbie does well, but often doesn’t have any other major characters to interact with. Her inclusion in the film mostly exists just to play into the final act, which, again, requires knowledge of the real story to make full sense of things.

This is likely to be Tarantino’s most divisive film, and it is absolutely his least accessible. It seems as though he primarily makes movies for himself, and as said above it looks as though everyone had a great time making this. For cinema fans it is, once again, enormous fun picking out the in-jokes and details. It would be described as a guilty pleasure if it wasn’t so damn well made.

Rating: NINE out of TEN