Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is Tarantino slowing things down and checking things out, a fairy tale that sucks us into the lives of fictional star Rick Dalton as he comes to a crossroads in his career and possibly history itself.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio (Dalton) and Brad Pitt (Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth) and the pair are sent on wild rides on the backlots of the then and old, as Tarantino slowly swirls the Manson Family and Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) murder around them. He slowly lets us into everyones’ lives, some more than others, but the film is more than happy to just sit back and let us adore these actors doing great work as their characters go about their lives. There is barely a plot, more a series of coincidences, and it is all building towards a finale that lets Tarantino air some grievances with history again.
This film really feels like a culmination of the director’s work since Death Proof, mashing together his love for stunts, westerns, re-writing history and his endless love for the movies into something that I can only imagine will age as well as anything he’s done. You never know where you are going with one of his films and you’re rarely prepared for when he goes for it. While this is his most calm film, he still turns the dials when he wants too, building things up piece by piece before it comes together perfectly by the end.
This is never more true than the arc of Pitt’s Cliff, who has the weirdest path in the film, but every second matters when we are with him. It makes his endpoint believable and Pitt is masterful at every turn. This is some of the best work we’ve gotten from an already underrated actor and you have to wonder to wonder how intentional it was of Tarantino to put him in the part behind the more traditional leading man type, in the character that not everyone really saw the actual potential within. There is even a running joke about Cliff’s wife, that winks at people carrying more about Pitt’s personal life than what he can do up on the screen.
This isn’t to write off DiCaprio though, no sir, he is incredible again for Tarantino, and continues to prove that he might be one of our great comedians if people give him the chance. He knows how to play Rick Dalton perfectly, and while DiCaprio might be an analogue for the fictional character in age, the two might not be quite as intertwined as Pitt & Cliff. DiCaprio is a great actor and he gets to poke fun at some peoples’ perception of him with Dalton, but Tarantino just gives him another great character to sink his teeth into and to show off everything the real life actor is capable of. Tarantino can’t quit making movies, because he needs to keep giving these guys great stuff to do.
The rest of the cast is littered with QT’s players, up and coming Hollywood daughters, and quick appearances by people who clearly just wanted to be in a Tarantino movie, with Robbie being the only one given anything of much consequence. Not that the ensemble isn’t great, Margaret Qualley continues to shine bright here, but the film is really a story about Rick and Cliff, with Robbie’s Tate on the edges. And Robbie does what Tarantino needs us to do with her, be intrigued, as the movie is entirely about her and what we didn’t get, even if she isn’t in the film nearly as much as expected. Robbie endears us to Tate, makes me want to seek out her films, and the film is a love letter to her, signed QT at the end. You get all of this whether you were in love with this era of cinema or not (I’m in the latter), but Tarantino makes you want to check it out and see what he is so in love with.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was a movie I loved hanging out with and Tarantino knows how to wow you in the end. Pitt and DiCaprio are phenomenal in the film, and while some will surely find the pacing of the film to be a bit much, especially given the director’s other work, I’m not going to complain here. I can’t wait to go back to Hollywood in 69 for this ride again.