When watching the films of Quentin Tarantino, there’s always that energy of wanting to show off his love of cinema on every frame but given the setting of his latest, it could either have been his most self-indulgent effort to date or maybe the love letter he’s been meaning to bring to the screen for a long while too. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, fittingly titled after Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time trilogy, is every bit a blast from the past of the final years of the 1960’s as one could ever expect Quentin Tarantino to make a film about Hollywood in the era to be, but it also might be the director’s most beautifully entertaining film to grace the screen since Inglourious Basterds. If anything else best sums up what makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood such a delight to watch, you’ll find all of it speaking clearly from the first frame to the last: for it still remains intact with the eagerness on display out of love for the films that have formed everything we’ve loved seeing in Tarantino’s work too. Though I’ve always enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s work as a whole, I haven’t loved his films as much as I used to as a teen who was getting into movies, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reminded me why I’ve always been so captivated by the stories he’s brought to the screen.
Set in the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells a story of the famed actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the star of the hit western television show Bounty Law, as he searches for a means of bringing his career back to the top after lamenting to his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that he has hit rock bottom. His new next door neighbours are the recently married couple of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (who has no role in the film whatsoever beyond that of a background detail), among those who Rick seeks to befriend to try and find a way to rise back up like he wished. But somewhere amidst the wandering through the ever-changing film industry, everyone finds themselves coming into contact with the Manson family too. There’s a whole lot that can be said about the episodic nature that Quentin Tarantino employs for the structuring of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but if there were any other way to capture a land where dreams come true on film, Tarantino’s already got the essence of what made Hollywood an entity unlike anything else. It’s the birth and death of dreams, and under Tarantino’s own vision of history, there’s never a moment where it’s anything less than dazzling – like the best dreams you would never want to wake up from.
There’s no real plot present in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, rather instead the film presents itself to be emblematic of what it felt like to be able to live in the highs and lows of 1960’s counterculture. But in the case with the setting of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the obvious love of pop culture that has helped define the best aspects of the films of Quentin Tarantino finds itself on another level. Looking upon how Tarantino has started out as a major figure in the independent film scene of the 1990’s, seeing him create what feels like his most personal work yet – a love letter to the films of the era that have best defined what kickstarted his own love for the cinema, gives oneself a glimpse at what it feels like to have these dreams being realized. Perhaps best embodied in Margot Robbie’s performance as the late Sharon Tate, there’s no scene that better sums up the crux of Tarantino’s success than to see her celebrating her onscreen success by watching The Wrecking Crew in a theater full of happy patrons, but even the sight of what could have been a reality is more tragic too. In many ways, this is the perfect love letter to Sharon Tate’s own legacy, for even in her limited screentime you can see a star-in-the-making as she witnesses what she’s capable of, for she’s living in a dream that has become a reality. But in her innocence there’s something more beautiful in thinking about what she was set to show us, yet couldn’t in actuality.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as Rick Dalton is without doubt the most entertaining that he has been onscreen, but even as he spends his time with his stunt double Cliff Booth, what we’re seeing is an idealized portrait of what happens when one lets their own idea of star power get to them even to a damaging degree. Yet even with the usual Tarantino quips of smart-sounding dialogue to the tongue, it’s clear that there’s still a sense of care being placed in how Tarantino wanted to capture having so much in one’s hands. It’s clear that Rick Dalton is caught up in his own idea of what makes high “art,” but even as we see him rehearsing a scene there’s also a great deal to love about how much he dedicates himself to his own craft. But even then there’s something heartwarming about seeing Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth trying to find ways in which they can adjust to the times, and even through the noted quips that make Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue shine so brightly, there’s still something satisfying to be seen in how each of their own individual threads start coming together.
This also might be Quentin Tarantino’s funniest film to date: as if anything else better captures the spirit that defined what it felt like to be under the influence from 1960’s Hollywood. The film isn’t also free of the cockiness that’s gotten to the head of those who are under the impression that they’ll see themselves turning huge (a particular scene with Bruce Lee exemplifies this), but it’s also a guarantee that what comes forth would also easily be Quentin Tarantino bringing you to see where his first love would all have started. But in typical Quentin Tarantino fashion, it’s not a Tarantino film without the sudden bursts of gratuitous violence, though there’s also a beauty to be found in seeing that he’s holding it further back in this case. But even when it comes back in the noted climax of the film, it’s more than everything one could ever have asked for – especially given the backdrop of Hollywood at the end of the 1960’s, with the Manson family still being at the center of everything. You can already feel Tarantino’s disdain for the Manson family burning through as he holds them responsible for ending an entire era in popular culture, as it builds up to a cathartic final moment unlike anything else he’s done in his career.
For every bit as self-indulgent as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might also be, it’s definitely very characteristic of everything that’s made Quentin Tarantino’s work as distinctive as it is. There’s never a single moment of the film that’s not entertaining, whether it be focusing solely on Rick Dalton’s search for a career resurgence or even Cliff Booth just wandering through all the major landmarks of Hollywood – he never holds back on everything that’s made the area a land where dreams of all sorts are born and die out. After the passing of his former editor Sally Menke, the pacing of Tarantino’s films had found itself coming to quite a halt but this is without doubt the smoothest film of his career after Menke’s death, for at around 161 minutes of length it never feels every bit as long as it does either. There came a certain point in which I thought maybe this could start meandering but I think that’s the only way in which a film that captures everything about Hollywood could have been made too, because this isn’t only about Rick Dalton or Sharon Tate’s dreams. As a matter of fact, I’m quite excited to return to this one at another point too.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Sony.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
Produced by David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Running Time: 161 minutes