This could have gone either way. Quentin Tarantino, the bad, impish boy of Hollywood refusing to mellow down and unleashing his view of senseless sensibility. (Isn’t that the path the Indian film industry’s Ram Gopal Varma took, right now lost in the shrubbery of manic camera angles and forced gangsta noir?) Or, taking a deep look and breath at what he truly loves, and then spinning a beautiful tale around it. Fortunately for us, he (Tarantino, not Varma, on whom the jury’s still out in the wilderness) chooses the reflectively meditative take laced with humor in his latest (and the best in years) outing that, for good measure, has an outstanding soundtrack, background score, and cinematography (Robert Richardson).
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the composite of the Hollywood of the late 1960s—1969, to be precise—and it’s got references galore that in themselves are propped by composite characters in some places, others referencing the industry’s folklore and gossip vineyards. But at the crux of Tarantino’s loving tribute to Hollywood are two plotlines that zig-zag around each other, tantalizing you with their inevitable and tragic crash-and-collide. The first plotline buzzes with a nervous crackle, relevant for all careers across industries—staying relevant in times that seem to galloping two paces (and generations) ahead. In Hollywood, this frightening struggle belongs to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the 50s swaggering anti-hero of the TV show Bounty Law, now staggering under the epiphanic weight of self-realization that his career’s going downhill with a foot on the accelerator. In other words, he’s nearing the cliff of irrelevance and has no clue what to do next. Speaking of which (cliff, that is) he’s always accompanied by his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who can’t get work elsewhere because of a vicious rumor about his past. But unlike the troubled Dalton, Booth epitomizes über coolness, happy with his pitbull Brandy in a trailer that’s appropriately parked off a drive-in. (The flickering buzz of the drive-in theater’s neon sign as the camera cranes over it to show us the trailer the first time is classic sound design by Harry Cohen and Sylvain Lasseur.)
The second plot-line tangles with the gruesome Tate murders that shook all of LA and America. Tying this up with the movie’s characters, Dalton realizes that director Roman Polanksi (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in next door in the tony Hollywood area, and plans to befriend them to resuscitate his worn-cowboy-boots career. Interspersing this arc with Dalton’s entry into Spaghetti Westerns—thanks to casting agent Marvin Schwarz’s (Al Pacino) giddy-upping—Tarantino (who also wrote this solid entertainer) adds Booth’s parallel visit to the Spahn Ranch (Bruce Dern in a superb cameo as George Spahn) thanks to his flirting with said ranch resident Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). Dalton’s story-line is done with delicate bruteness, his see-sawing between self-doubt and desperation for redemption touching and empathetic. The lovely scene where he finally gets a hug of approval from his 8-year old co-star Trudi Fraser (an absolutely winning performance by Julia Butters) is a highlight.
Booth’s track meanwhile is ominous fun, packing solid action, dry wit, and a deadly scene at the Spahn Ranch, where Tarantino’s wide-angle landscaping shots take your breath away. As is the director’s creative wont, he adds laconic dialogues that are conversational with volleys of smart-ass exchanges. But you’re bursting with part-terror part-anticipation for the dust to kick up. All of that happens, even as the director connects the tracks to what is a terrifying and blood-laced climax that’s sharp breaths all the way. Hollywood has a host of cameos (Kurt Russell, who also does the narration, Emile Hirsch, the late Luke Perry in his last appearance, Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Samantha Robinson, Dakota Fanning, among others), but it is a trio who are stand-outs.
Leonardo DiCaprio is marvelous, consumed by his foibles, insecurities, and weaknesses. Even in moments of career-high of his character, the threatening spark of insecurity flashes across the actor’s face, as if there’s a price to pay for every milestone of success. Brad Pitt is is antithetic to Caprio, his act a swig of Kool-Aid and solid charm. Pitt internalizes and externalizes all the Robert Redford-ness suaveness, machismo, and swagger, and he does it so brilliantly, you root for him when he’s onscreen, and when he isn’t, you root for him to show up. As the tragic Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie comes up with a heart-breaking performance, especially in the sequence where she goes to the theater to watch her own act in The Wrecking Crew. (Tarantino also perhaps fetishizing soiled female feet with both Tate and Pussycat.) After trying to shrug off and then owning her Valley of Dolls act with the cinema hall staff, her wide-eyed delight in watching and hearing the audience react to her scenes is quite simply a quiet stab to the heart.
“Not everyone needs a stuntman”, grunts George Spahn to Booth. If, only if, Sharon Tate had a Booth in her life and residence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood probably wouldn’t be the fairy tale it is now.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood is rated A (Restricted to adults) Even if comic and toned-down violence, some sequences are intense. Plus, they all love their drinks, smokes, and (gasp) acid.
Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood
Director Quentin Tarantino Time 2h 41min
Writer Quentin Tarantino
Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Genres Comedy, Drama