Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie review: Quentin Tarantino film buoyed by Leo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt's performances
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a celebration of the kind of films that first inspired Quentin Tarantino himself as a child.
Note: This review was originally published after the film's world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. We are republishing it ahead of its Indian theatrical release.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brims with the kind of palpable love for cinema that only a passionate cinephile like Quentin Tarantino can bring on screen. It uses cinematic and pop-culture mythology for a magical imitation of reality. It is a celebration of the kind of films that first inspired Tarantino himself as a child.
In a modern film industry increasingly reliant on VFX and CGI to tell its stories, Tarantino has always stood out because his imagination and writing have always been the biggest special effects of them all. Throughout his work, he has retained certain postmodern hallmarks — the pop culture pastiche, stylised violence, whip-crack dialogue, excellent music choices and inherently stylish characters. His ninth feature, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has all this and more. Yet, they fail to synthesise into a truly mesmerising whole.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood builds slowly, accumulating characters and taking various detours before unraveling in a batshit-spectacular fashion. Its climax will leave you in a delirious Dopamine-rush, the kind of which only Tarantino can induce. Watching one of the most eagerly anticipated films on opening night in a theater full of fellow Tarantino fans is the manifestation of what makes the communal experience of cinema so magical.
Tarantino had appealed to festival-goers to keep things spoiler-free for future audiences. So, that is precisely what we will do.
The year is 1969 and the setting is Hollywood: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a once-popular TV actor in ’50s and early ’60s, whose career is currently on a very slippery downward slope, having been typecast as the bad guy in every series. He often messes up his lines on set and has turned into a self-pitying alcoholic. He wants to break into cinema and his agent, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), advises him to work on Sergio Corbucci-type spaghetti westerns. Rick's character seems to signify an actor's struggle — and perhaps Tarantino's own struggle — for relevance in an ever-changing film industry.
Rick's stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who has got a bit of a problematic backstory, has been reduced to playing the role of a driver but he is always on hand to help boost Rick's dwindling confidence. He is the epitome of the Hollywood tough guy. In a spectacular scene, he even takes down Bruce Lee in hand-to-hand combat.
Their next-door neighbours on Benedict Canyon are Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. Elsewhere, the Manson family is growing in number and nefariousness. And all their paths cross on that terrible night of 8 August, 1969. Will history repeat itself or will it be rewritten, providing an Inglourious Basterds-style catharsis in ridding the world of homicidal criminals?
The indescribable magnetic attraction the movies have had for Tarantino is felt in nearly every frame of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He spends a lot of the first half building the world of 1969 Hollywood from the memories of his childhood, as Rick and Cliff drive past the neon-lit marquee signs around the streets of Hollywood Boulevard in their cream-coloured Cadillac, listening to popular '60s hits. The story told through his eyes boasts of an astonishing level of visual detail and inventiveness. He also shows us a variety of vignettes of Rick shooting for a Western and gives us a behind-the-scenes look at '60s Hollywood. But he often spends too much time on these film-within-a-film set pieces, rather than focus on the main storyline.
Not only does Tarantino pay homage to the various cinematic styles he grew up appreciating, he also includes plenty of visual winks to his own works, from Jackie Brown to Death Proof. The film is filled with plenty of memorable moments, from the absurdly funny (Pitt tripping on acid and trying to feed a dog) to uncharacteristically tender (DiCaprio breaking down in front of a child method actor) to nerve-shatteringly tense (Cliff's trip to Spahn Ranch).
DiCaprio is, as you would expect, simply sensational and thrills with each emotional outburst. Pitt is equally sensational, combining an antihero charisma with his inimitable swagger. Though Robbie has a low line-count, she is still divine in a role that favours intuition over imitation. She sways, beams and shines through the "Meanwhile, let's check in on Tate" moments, which includes a lovely scene where she attends a screening of The Wrecking Crew (her own film with Dean Martin). With her, Margaret Qualley's Pussycat and the Manson girls, Tarantino's foot fetish is even more pronounced with an excess of sensualised shots.
Tarantino had to obviously race through the editing process in time for Cannes, and it shows. There are some strange editing choices that give the film a jittery, stilted quality that wreaks a little havoc on its narrative flow. And it could easily have been at least half-an-hour shorter.
Though highly ambitious in scope, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood lacks the finesse and energy of Tarantino's previous efforts, mainly because it feels unusually laboured for his standards — and he just cannot seem to tie the whole package together into another audacious masterpiece.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Click here to follow our coverage of the festival straight from the Croisette.
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