Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino, opens with a brief highlight reel of faded action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Reduced to bad-guy-of-the-week guest spots, Dalton spends most of his days drinking and being chauffeured around by his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). He owns a house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills where his new neighbor is an up-and-coming young actress named Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The year is 1969. If you know your history, you might see where this is going.
But you’d only be partially right, because Once Upon a Time really doesn’t go anywhere. Like, at all. You know those monologues Tarantino’s characters like to engage in that meander around while talking about how great the 60s were? This whole film is like one of those monologues delivered by Tarantino himself for nearly three hours.
That shouldn’t be seen as a totally negative thing, though. Sure, it doesn’t always seem like it has a point, it takes a long time to say anything, and it’s by the most unreliable of narrators, but it’s kind of fascinating in its solipsism and soft focus nostalgia. And there are enough solid emotional beats and fascinating asides to make it mostly worth the time it takes for Tarantino to get out what he has to say.
It helps that the focus is squarely on Dalton and Cliff, two old, leathery souls that take very different approaches to navigating a Hollywood that is rapidly evolving without them. Dalton tends toward despair and panic that’s just barely contained by alcohol and years of action-star posturing (although his poorly disguised stutter tends to give the game away). How much Tarantino sees of himself in Dalton is up for debate, but there’s definitely something there. Meanwhile, Cliff is much more “dude” about everything, lacking ambition but abundant in mellow. Dalton might be terrified of losing his spotlight, but Cliff never had one and has much less at stake.
Both DiCaprio and Pitt are well in touch with their characters, and both make each man a sympathetic and magnetic presence. DiCaprio loses himself in Dalton, fully connected to a kind of dread laced with hope. Dalton’s thread in the second act involves him acting as the heavy in the Western series Lancer, and we see both his creative breakdown when he flubs his lines and his later resurgence when he remembers who he is. Dalton might be highly flawed and the architect of his own downfall, but you want him to succeed and find redemption. Meanwhile, the relatively unflappable Cliff can initially come off as a bit monochromatic, but it suits the character perfectly. Cliff is a tough dude, and he’s seen and been through a lot. Pitt has Cliff’s world-weariness down, maintaining a charming gleam in Cliff’s eye while also keeping his emotional cards extremely close to the chest.
Both male leads seem like fully-fleshed characters, but the same can’t really be said of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. She has very few actual lines of dialogue, virtually none of any importance, and only one scene to really do anything at all. But it’s a hell of a scene, involving Sharon attending a showing of The Wrecking Crew, one of her own movies. As she sits in the theatre, nervously gauging the audience’s reaction to her scenes and beaming as they seem to appreciate her, she radiates a kind of warmth and golden glow. Robbie is a great actress, and there is a lot of potential to explore with Tate as a character, but Tarantino doesn’t give either woman the space they need to really breathe and come alive.
It’s kind of like that all over, though. Nobody really does any growing or changing over the course of the film because Tarantino isn’t spinning a narrative here. He’s telling a fairy tale. He’s talking about how things used to be — how he thinks things should have been — occasionally inserting famous names or events into things to give it some measure of verisimilitude. Bruce Lee shows up at one point, as does the Manson Family in an extended sequence with Cliff that comes off as the tense, dangerous prelude to a cult horror film.
Tarantino’s story deals heavily in revisionist history, something he’s done several times before, although here it feels particularly personal. It’s clear that Tarantino feels quite deeply about the Golden Age of Hollywood and the following post-classical era. It isn’t until the final act that anything resembling action begins to happen, though, so wrapped up is Tarantino in exploring his thoughts on the era. Those thoughts often take entertaining and fascinating forms, but they don’t serve any kind of real plot. Your tolerance for that, and Tarantino’s fast-and-loose presentation of real events, will likely determine how much you’ll get out of the film, although story or not, DiCaprio and Pitt’s performances are worth it.
Once Upon a Time… is both the most and least Tarantino film in a very long time. On the one hand, it comes off as a heartfelt love letter to classic Hollywood, something Tarantino has always held close. But on the other, Tarantino also reigns in a lot of his more outrageous tendencies and tricks. The violence he’s known for only shows up in the last act, and it crosses the line so many times that it’s impossible to keep count. He lets most scenes unfold organically and smoothly, with editing that’s tight but not jarring and just the right amount of twisted humor. The celebrity cameos in general don’t come off as gimmicks or metatextual references. It’s kind of refreshing, in a way, and it’s easier to get immersed in the film’s alternate-history indulgences. (The countless, gratuitous shots of women’s feet, however, tend to take you out of things and remind you that you’re watching a Tarantino film and he really, really has a thing for feet.)
Even if there seems to be too much film here for such a slight narrative, the film doesn’t feel as long as it is, because Tarantino has a sure hand in his approach and keeps things moving with a killer soundtrack and a genuine sympathy for his subjects and setting. It’s less a movie than a collection of character scenes, but what scenes they are. It makes you nostalgic for a past that never really was, and isn’t that what fairy tales are all about?
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B