Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running Length: 161 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Plenty of directors have shown an affinity for their medium throughout the course of their careers…you kind of have to when you’re in an industry that loves a good pat on the back almost as much as they love a great opening weekend. I’m not sure if I know of a filmmaker, however, that truly loves movies as much as Quentin Tarantino does. Though the writer/director is notorious for his outspoken ways and has come under fire recently when some questionable actions on the set of the Kill Bill movies resurfaced, he’s never shied away from wearing his movie nerdishness loud and proud. A fanboy for movies that range from popular classic to underground cult, Tarantino has an eclectic taste which has helped him to cull numerous reference points for his films throughout the years.
So it’s fitting that he’s finally gotten around to making a film about Hollywood, creating a story about a waning star and his stunt double crossing paths with faces both factual and fictional. Far from being an expose on the dark side of the Hollywood lifestyle, Tarantino is more interested in recreating the feel of living in this mecca that lured so many dreamers and, more specifically, how one man comes to terms with his fading career. As with many Tarantino films, the object from the first frame is total immersion in the time and place and though it has recognizable actors from 2019 you could easily believe it was made 50 years ago. You’ve likely heard it also has something to do with Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, and the infamous tragedy that occurred on August 8, 1969 but…more on that later.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, back onscreen after a four-year absence and reteaming with his Django Unchained director) is a former star of a mildly popular western television show looking for his next project. Unable to rest on the laurels of his previous role much longer, he seeks the advice of a blunt talent agent (Al Pacino, Stand-Up Guys, nicely dialing down his tired Pacino-y mannerisms) who urges him to consider leaving Hollywood to star in a series of spaghetti westerns filming in Italy. The majority of the film tracks Rick over the next two days as he prepares to film a guest spot on a television series while mulling this new international opportunity.
At the same time, Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, World War Z) acts as chauffeur, handyman, gopher, and overall sidekick to the man he takes onscreen falls for. Earning a bad reputation in the industry for a mystery surrounding his wife, Cliff can’t get much work outside of his employ with Rick so he sticks around hoping his boss will land another role that will call for his talents. The two men have a clear kinship that extends beyond any lines of stardom and there’s an unspoken respect and loyalty flowing both ways, which is established so well Tarantino doesn’t need to fill in any gaps for the audience into how the two were paired in the first place.
What Tarantino does do, though, is take numerous opportunities to cut away to previous jobs Rick and Cliff worked on with varying degrees of success. It’s fun to see DiCaprio loosen up dancing and singing (terribly) on Hullaballoo and an extended sequence where Cliff has it out with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie but is quite entertaining on its own merits. Where it gets tricky is when Tarantino indulges himself too much, taking us on long drives through Los Angeles (we get it, it’s a bigger town than we think) and burns valuable time with clips from Rick Dalton’s previous appearances. Still, those drives through Los Angeles give production designer Barbara Ling (The Lucky One) an excuse to recreate some fantastic locales in exquisite detail. All theaters would need to do is pump in some smog and you are right there in the heart of L.A.
The first hour of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ambles nicely into interesting territory as we get our bearings (courtesy, again, of those long car rides) but it’s Cliff’s chance meeting of a hippie waif (Margaret Qualley, Novitiate) and offering her a ride home when the movie starts to get intriguing. When they arrive at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and Cliff meets the girl’s “family” his alarm bells go off and the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up. Tarantino makes this not just the turning point of the movie but it’s centerpiece as well, as Cliff slowly realizes things aren’t what they appear to be and the property, which he is familiar with from his career with Rick, wouldn’t just be turned over to these creepy hippies.
Here’s where I have to give the slightest caveat of a spoiler alert coming up. While I won’t give any key plot details away I’ll need to make a few points known. It’s not something you won’t already know.
Though many of us know about Charles Manson and his Manson Family, I was fuzzier on some of the finer details and didn’t realize until later when it was that Tarantino shifted into a slightly alternate timeline to the events as they originally occurred. The actual involvement of Manson and his followers in Tarantino’s movie is, honestly, minimal but it is a key piece of the overall story Tarantino has worked out regarding Rick and Cliff.
That means Manson victim Sharon Tate becomes a character in the film as well, showing up as Rick’s next door neighbor and giving Tarantino another real life individual with a timeline he may or may not feel the need to play around with. Though brought to life with vibrancy by a nearly silent Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Tate is a minor player that Tarantino prefers to keep at a distance when things take a dark turn. Clearly, he only wants to remember Tate when she was young and beautiful, even going so far as to have Robbie going to see herself as Tate in a movie but watching the actual footage of Tate in the film. For other celebrity sightings, keep your eyes open for appearances by Steve McQueen, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, Effie Gray, in a chilling cameo), Mama Cass, and Connie Stevens.
It’s not spoiling anything to say the night of August 8, 1969 is the final destination of the movie. The ending of the film is still a bit of a puzzlement to me and I think I’ll need to see it again to firm up my thoughts on how successful it is. I’d be interested in hearing what the families of the victims think about the way Tarantino handled the events of that night and if the choices he made moved any immovable dials in their heart. Like most Tarantino films (and quite like 2015’s The Hateful Eight) the director pulls all the stops out for the final reel – audience members at my screening seemed to go along with it but my reaction was more muted.
The real story here are the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, arguably two of the honest-to-goodness biggest stars Hollywood has right now. Both have toplined countless films and brought them to box office glory but combining their talents was a real win for Tarantino and a boon for the film as a whole. As with many of his performances, I found DiCaprio good to a point, but the actor always gets to a certain level where you clearly see the effort being made and then it falls apart for me. A scene of Rick chastising himself after a lackluster performance in a scene goes on far too long and, because we’ve already seen Rick’s vulnerability, is redundant. It’s a good thing DiCaprio has Pitt next to him for so much of the movie because this is Pitt’s most radiant time to shine. Wearing the barely visible faded scars of a stuntman long in the business, Pitt’s best moments are when he’s not saying anything at all but just reacting to what’s happening around him. It’s one of his all-time great roles and, coupled with the much anticipated Ad Astra, could mean 2019 winds up being a very good year for him.
At nearly three hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could arguably be trimmed by a good twenty minutes, though I think it would be at the expense of some tone setting and establishment of characters. No question, there’s a less laborious way to get through the movie but I didn’t find myself bored, easily making it through this one more than I have numerous films half its length. It’s a must-see in theaters and try to catch it in 35MM should it be playing in that format nearest you. Then go read up about the people and places you see and untangle the fact and fiction braid Tarantino has weaved.