REVIEW – ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ plays like a glorious love letter to the Tinseltown of old

With only eight films in his illustrious career, writer/director Quentin Tarantino has left an indelible mark on cinema in the last few decades. Love him or hate him, you cannot deny the filmmaker’s unique style and vision. With  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his ninth (and potentially penultimate) film, Tarantino offers a deeply personal piece of cinema that plays like a glorious love letter to the Tinseltown of old.

In perhaps his most compassionate and affectionate work to date, Tarantino meticulously recreates Hollywood of the late 1960s in all its neon-drenched glory. An era which clearly made a heavy impact on the filmmaker, there’s no doubting this film is a passion project with all the highs and lows that come with such a work.

With a purposely meandering plot in no hurry to reveal its true intentions, the 159-minute running time will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for fans of the auteur director, it’s another cavalcade of dialogue-heavy vignettes, wicked soundtrack choices, pop culture references, and an ending that’s classic Tarantino divisiveness.

The time is 1969. The place is Los Angeles. And as the sun sets on the Swinging Sixties, it also appears to be setting on the once-soaring career of Rick Dalton (an electric Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading actor and former star of 1950s Western television series Bounty Law. Crippled with insecurity and flirting with alcoholism, Dalton drinks away his sorrows with his best friend, stunt double, pseudo-therapist, and personal chauffeur Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, never better).

After his series was cancelled, Dalton’s career has stalled and his status as a leading man has evaporated, leaving him with no choice but to take a series of generic villain (“the heavy”) guest spots on practically every television show in Hollywood. Despite the desperate pleas of his agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) to resurrect his career by travelling to Italy to star in the booming spaghetti western genre, Dalton remains determined to stick it out in Los Angeles and wait for that one elusive role which will bring him back to stardom.

His proximity to fame is also spurring him on, with celebrated French/Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his glamorous actress wife Sharon Tate (an underused but captivating Margot Robbie) recently moving in next door to Dalton on the secluded (and soon to be very famous) Cielo Drive. Given his closeness to these two dazzling stars, Dalton fantasises he might be just “one pool party” away from catching his big break.

As Dalton works on clawing his way back to the top, Booth has a chance encounter with a young hippie hitchhiker by the name of Pussycat (a brief but divine Margaret Qualley) who asks for a lift back to her home at Spahn Movie Ranch. As it turns out, the ranch was the shooting location for Bounty Law, leaving Booth suspicious of what’s become of the former production lot and its owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern).

Arriving at the now dilapidated and abandoned movie ranch, Booth is startled to see it’s become the compound for a large number of hippie squatters, led by Spahn’s new “girlfriend” Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning). In actuality, they are the devoted and brainwashed followers of cult-leader Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). And, as we all know, the Manson Family are about to make their mark, as the film barrels towards August 9, 1969, aka “the day the Sixties ended.”

At the request of Tarantino himself, we film critics have been asked not to reveal anything that would “prevent later audiences from experiencing the film in the same way.” As such, it’s not possible to tell you much more about the surprising trajectory this narrative ultimately follows. For almost three-quarters of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood exhaustive running time, you may begin to question if Tarantino has any purpose for this film besides offering a nostalgic glimpse at the life of movie stars in the 1960s.

For those well-versed in Tarantino’s filmography, it will be obvious he’s merely employing his deft gift for offering a series of interlinked episodic scenes that are ultimately brought together in the film’s startling conclusion. This isn’t a linear narrative that plods from A to B, instead deviating off course through the lives of Dalton, Booth, and Tate in varying ways. Some of these moments hold huge importance for the overall picture. Others serve little purpose than fleshing out their characters or capturing the innocuous actions of their daily lives.

Where this all leads is a twist-filled finale that’s brutal, shocking, and, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant. It’s the kind of conclusion you genuinely wish to applaud. Playing on the film’s innocent-sounding title, it’s a climax sure to outrage many, particularly in its typically-Tarantino ultraviolence that makes its adults-only classification rating far more understandable. It stands as a startling juxtaposition to the two-hour-long wistful nature and endearing nostalgia that preceded the climax to lull you into a false sense of security.

It’s in the film’s first two acts where Tarantino’s undying love for this era of Hollywood is so overtly displayed. Whether we’re cruising past grand (and now extinct) movie theatres along the Sunset Strip, witnessing sunset bring a series of flashing neon signs to life, or stopping by the backlot of a fictional movie studio, Tarantino and the masterful work of production designer Barbara Ling have recreated Los Angeles of 1969 in stunning style. It’s this painstaking work which blesses the film with such spectacular authenticity, it’s often hard to remember we’re watching a film made in the 21st century.

While these moments will be a genuine treasure for lovers of cinema (and Los Angeles) history, they ultimately represent the changing of the guard, as two aging men have no choice but to watch the landscape of Hollywood change and leave them behind. Is this Tarantino’s commentary on the current high-speed state of the movie industry where popularity and success seem even more fleeting than ever? DiCaprio and Pitt have certainly navigated the minefield to continuous success, but there are dozens of Daltons and Booths who have not.

Tate represents the future of the industry, albeit a tragic one for anyone with a base knowledge of her life. The endless opportunities in front of her stand in stark contrast to the continuously diminishing options facing both Dalton and Booth. Never is that more evident than a pair of contradictory scenes with both offering an insight into the psyches of Dalton and Tate and represent the film’s greatest moments.

As he awaits the filming of his next scene, Dalton reads a pulp western novel featuring a hero named Easy Breezy whose time in the sun is coming to an end, providing a pitch-perfect analogy for his current dire state. Recognising himself in the work, Dalton laments he’s becoming “slightly more useless each day.” In a masterful moment of absurdity, Dalton is saved from total depression by his precocious eight-year-old co-star Trudi (a scene-stealing Julia Butters), who calls the actor out on his bullshit and pushes him to try harder.

In a moment of true bittersweet beauty, Tate attends a matinee session of her latest film The Wrecking Crew, even giddily informing the theatre staff she’s “in the movie.” As she quietly slinks into the cinema, Tate watches her own performance, but, more importantly, the reactions of the audience to her slapstick comedy and klutzy character. Without a word of dialogue, Robbie portrays an impressive display of emotion (your heart will soar when her face genuinely lights up from the audience’s approval), made all the more effective by Tarantino using actual footage of the real Tate on the screen before Robbie.

It’s a metatextual moment that’s so wildly moving for a variety of reasons. Tarantino could have easily edited Robbie into the existing film, as seen elsewhere with DiCaprio/Dalton inserted into a Steve McQueen classic he was almost cast in. By choosing to show the actual performance of Tate, he’s hitting his audience right in the heart. Much has been made of Robbie’s lack of dialogue in the film, but this is a supporting role, and Robbie makes the most of it. What she lacks in words, she compensates for with her endless charm and evocative expressions. Tate’s ultimate fate hovers over this film like a sombre ghost, but Tarantino pays beautiful tribute to the actress and Robbie accepts the challenge with aplomb.

But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ultimately belongs to DiCaprio and Pitt, who are both on absolute fire here and combine to make a spectacular pairing that begs to be repeated in future films. As the egocentric and narcissistic actor, DiCaprio perfectly captures the fragile ego of a performer losing hope for his future. It’s a fate awaiting anyone with a shred of fame behind them, and it’s impossible not to feel empathy for Dalton. In the hands of a lesser actor, he would be a genuinely unlikeable character. But DiCaprio finds the pathos here by wearing Dalton’s heart on his sleeve in an endearing and sympathetic performance that’s one of the best he’s ever offered.

With an engaging allure reminiscent of Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Pitt is effortlessly lovable as the fearless and uncompromising Booth. His self-assured swagger and winning warmth are impossible to resist, with Pitt crafting a character so ridiculously charming, we’re not even alarmed the man may or may not have murdered his wife. It helps his best friend is a pit bull terrier named Brandy, which only humanises this mysterious character even further. In a ridiculously overloaded ensemble cast, it’s Pitt who impresses the most and it just may land the actor his fourth Oscar nomination. It’s the best he’s been in years, deserving of recognition come awards season.

At its heart, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s revisionist history of an era he’s looking at through rose-coloured glasses. It means the film can be a little too self-indulgent at times where the filmmaker can’t separate his love of nostalgia from the actual truth of this period. Occasionally, he seemingly loses focus on his overall goal, causing the film to drag and the pacing to sputter along. Even those who love his dialogue-loaded sequences will have their patience tested here.

But with his glitzy, dirty, and wickedly funny masterpiece, Tarantino is ultimately putting his unique spin on a ghastly chapter in Hollywood history with a distorted fairy tale that absolutely lives up to its title. He’s always been a director to delight in playing with history, and this may be his magnum opus before he bids us farewell with his final film on the horizon. If this is the twilight of his career, he’s certainly going out with a bang. Long live Hollywood and all her majestic and flawed beauty.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Production Design: Barbara Ling
Editing: Fred Raskin
Running Time: 159 minutes
Release Date: 15th August 2019 (Australia)

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