Once Upon A Time in Hollywood Movie Review: 1969. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is a popular star of '50s TV, Bounty Law, but is struggling to get meaningful work in the '60s. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stuntman, chauffeur and bestie, all rolled into one. After a meeting with top casting agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), Rick returns home, driven by Cliff, all the while questioning where his career is heading and how he hates 'Spaghetti Westerns' that he is being offered. As they drive into his porch, the duo sees their neighbours' car with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood LA Premiere: Lead Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie Pose Together, Celebs Chris Hemsworth, Britney Spears Attend.
The scene is shot in a way it feels both Rick and Cliff are mesmerised with Tate's beauty. I was. But then it turns out they are actually checking out her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) with Rick wondering why it took one month to realise the director of Rosemary's Baby was his neighbour and whether he would invite Rick to his pool party.
That one scene represents Once Upon A Time in Hollywood's narrative through more than one perspective. For one, it shows how these stars, cooped up in their Los Angeles pads, are so oblivious about their surroundings until it has something to do with their careers. Secondly, it represents how Sharon Tate, as a character, is used in the film - a beautiful narrative decoy - while the boys figure out what to do with Hollywood and its accompanying problems. And yes, it also shows that you may not be watching a typical Quentin Tarantino saga!
Sure, the movie plays with the real-life fateful encounter of Sharon Tate and her friends, with Charlie Manson and his murderous cult. Though, not in the way you expect. Fans of Quentin Tarantino knows how the director loves to play around with alternative history; see what Inglorious Basterds does with Hitler and the fall of his Nazi regime.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is QT's most subversive attempt. Contrary to what the promotional material might tell you, the movie isn't really about those brutal murders. Yes, you can call it a love letter to the swinging sixties, with the hippie culture, the glorious Easter Eggs and callbacks and nostalgic score, not to mention, enough love given to Sergio Leone, done justice to. And yet, the Tate story and the '60s setting are merely building blocks to a carefully structured tribute to what Tarantino loves the best - Cinema in its whole essence. Or rather, it is an ode to all the actors (won't say 'actress' 'cos, as a wonderful Julia Butters' 8-yo actor says, it is such a made-up word).
In a gloriously edited chain of sequences, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), one of the Manson girls whom Cliff takes a fancy for, tells him how fake the movies are. This is intercut with Rick trying to give his career-best performance as a villain in a Western TV Series. There is the third scene of Sharon Tate, who IRL sadly never managed to get herself out of the B status, enjoying the audience's reaction to her performance while watching The Wrecking Crew in a theatre. Three wonderful aspects about cinema - derision, performance and appreciation - all laid out in that terrific stretch that only QT's writing can do justice to.
And as goes with classic QT tropes (not talking about feet fetish, though it is there too) there are little scenes that lead to a wonderful payback later. Like the one involving Rick struggling to rehearse with a flamethrower for a movie. Or him talking to the precocious little method actor, Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) about a Western novel that he is reading which ends up a little too self-reflective.
At times, it is pure fun like when Cliff takes on Bruce Lee (a brilliantly cast Mike Moh) in a bout of alpha male egos. And at times, we feel that the tribute has gone a bit too long for a stretch.
Quentin Tarantino is a film-maker who loves to indulge himself in creating whimsical scenes and moments. Which is no different with Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, only that he goes beyond his usual quota. With no apparent storyline in sight, the movie takes a lot of time to get to the point with some scenes dragging on and on. A couple of scenes feel unwarranted, and yet, you still can't stop liking them. How can you not fall for a scene where one of my favourite screen legends, Steve McQueen, played by an aptly cast Damian Lewis, offers to give a backstory for Sharon Tate, that too at a Playboy party? It was needless, but winky-winky fun!
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is also QT's wildest ride, in terms that it doesn't retain much of his dark flourishes. And when it does, it makes you bite your nails. Like, when Cliff meets the Manson folks at the Spahn Ranch. Every minute of the scene is filled with palpable tension, with some brilliant use of the theme music for a show that a character is watching. Or the typical Tarantino-isque violent climax that is both brutal and hilarious, while also raising the perennial debate on how QT likes to brutalise his female characters. Nevertheless, it is a climax that you really don't expect.
Another big departure here is that this is a Tarantino film where he relies more on the actors to pull off the sequence, rather than let the scenes dictate them. Each cast member, whether in the lead or in supporting or in a cameo (and there are plenty, ranging from the late Luke Perry to legendary Kurt Russell) - makes good of their screentime. Al Pacino owns the first reel showcasing his classiness as the agent/producer who tells Rick where he is going wrong. Bruce Dern has one scene and he is a treat to watch in that. Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Austin Butler, Maya Hawke, Madisen Beaty, Mikey Madison are all excellent as the Manson cult members. Even the dog, who plays Cliff's pet Brandy, is a great piece of casting and basically owns the climax of the film.
But Once Upon A Time in Hollywood belongs to its three leads, each adding his or her flair to make the film special. It feels so lovely to watch Leo mug it up on screen after he took a post-Oscar sabbatical for three years. Leo feels all kinds of believable as the insecure soap star at the brink of being a has-been, brilliantly working out each sequence of him trying to push himself as an actor, both in-character and otherwise. Watch his versatility in the scene where Rick, while shooting for the Western, has to be both an intense, scenery-chewing actor and then breaking the take to remember his lines.
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Brad Pitt, meanwhile, is the stand-in for Tarantino's stape of the viciously cool, morally conflicted protagonist. He brings in a lot of charm as Booth, hounded by a shady past, and he reigns over the climax of the film (along with Brandy). Both Leo and Brad have excellent chemistry, making me wonder why the hell it took a 2019 to bring them onscreen together!
Contrary to expectations, Margot Robbie as Tate feels underused as a character; but as a metaphor for every beautiful, tragic and cheery about Hollywood, she is exquisitely utilised.
- A Fine Ode to Cinema
- The Performances
- Leo and Brad's Bromance
- Excellently Written Scenes
- The Black Humour
- The Callbacks and the Cameos
- Over-indulgence in Certain Scenes
- Lack of Storyline and Real Character Development
- Could Have Trimmed Some of the Scenes
- Not for Fans Who Expects A Proper Retelling of Real-Life Incidents
- Also Not for Those Who Expects Gritty Elements Throughout
If there is any film that relishes on playing around with our expectations (and not making a mess of it), it is Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. At times, over-indulgent and bit of a drag, Quentin Tarantino's ninth film (if you consider both Kill Bill films as one) is a pleasantly surprising detour from his kind of cinema, while still playing with the rules that he had rewritten himself. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a delightful tribute to the magic of movies, propelled by the enigmatic performances from DiCaprio and Pitt.