Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

This review is spoiler-free.

Quentin Tarantino, as a filmmaker, and I go way, way back.  The first movie I ever saw of his was Pulp Fiction and it, coupled with Ebert’s brilliant review, was like a master class in movies.  It was responsible for so much of my passion for the medium.  Suddenly, I saw all the ways you could break the rules and traditions of filmmaking in new, exciting ways.

I watched all of his movies and loved Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and both volumes of Kill Bill when they came out.  Even movies he wrote, but didn’t direct, like True Romance.  

A lot of his recent output, though, has left me feeling cold.  The Hateful Eight, in particular, is Quentin Tarantino giving in to his worst impulses and trying to make a cynical, ugly western in the vain of Sam Peckinpah, but he’s always been better at emulating the fun energy of Sergio Leone.  Even a better movie from his later output, like Inglourious Basterds, never did anything for me personally.  I felt like maybe I had outgrown Tarantino, or maybe that he’d outgrown me, and we didn’t need each other anymore.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, though, feels like a return to form.  I loved this movie.  I loved it.  I loved every minute of it’s 2 hour and 41 minute run time.  It was everything I wanted in a Quentin Tarantino movie:  It was self-referential, it was indulgent in its own excesses and it was a sloppy, beautiful mess of a movie, oozing with admiration of a time and place.  It was unabashedly nostalgic–and people call Spielberg sentimental.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a washed up movie star who bounces from television show to television show as the bad guy of the week.  Seeing him getting beaten week after week, he’s told, gives the audiences a psychological effect, in which he can never recover.  He’s seen as a punching bag, a joke, and is advised to do a stint in Italy making spaghetti westerns and spy movies.  Dalton is like a Doug McClure, lapsing into parodying himself for money with whatever odd jobs he can wrangle up.

Brad Pitt plays Rick’s stuntman and all around go-form, Cliff Booth.  They’ve been friends for a long time, and it’s a confused relationship with some mutual admiration and a sort of emotional dependency.  Both of their lives are messed up and they’re both the only person they can entirely trust, even though Cliff harbors would could potentially be a deadly secret.  Like Robert Wagner, we may never know the truth.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, whose success mirrors Rick Dalton’s.  Rick is on his way down, and she’s on her way up.  They both run into people who don’t recognize them, but for her it’s exciting.  For him, it’s a nightmare come to life.  Sharon Tate’s story imbues the movie with a certain lightness, a certain brightness and, ironically, a certain amount of hope.

How these stories converge with the notorious real-life murders coordinated by the Manson “Family” is a surprising, shit-you-not mature (for Tarantino, anyway) look at the horrific and powerful effects of real-life violence.  Tarantino is no stranger to “mature” filmmaking with movies like Jackie Brown, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a reflection on real-life violence I’ve never seen from the filmmaker before.  How everything wraps up is bittersweet and genuinely sad.  It’s something I’ve never really seen before in that it’s on the surface extremely exploitative, in order to make a point that’s disarming with how sweet it is, and comes across significantly less tone-deaf than your average Netflix true crime documentary.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t wallow in sleaze.  It celebrates movie violence and sheds a tear over real violence.  Somehow, Tarantino gets to have his cake and eat it, too.  He combines themes and genres in such an energetic, complete way that I thought he’d abandoned a long time ago.

The in-movie movies and shows were all so well done.  I loved the opening credit sequences for Dalton’s western series “Bounty Law.”  Everything felt so genuine, and shot on the correct film stock to mimic the period’s look and feel.

If I do have a complaint, and I do, it’s been echoed before by other reviewers that Margot Robbie doesn’t have enough to do.  And it’s true.  Her story could have been significantly fuller.  It’s not bad, and it’s a fun storyline about rising success, contrasted with tragedy, but it could have been so much more.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like all of his movies, also suffers from being overstuffed.  It didn’t need to be as long as it was, but at least it was never boring.  And this time the movie wasn’t overstuffed with lines of aimless, Tarantino dialogue that the director loved and didn’t want to cut, it had too much to say.  It sometimes stated its points ineloquently, and could have been refined, but I think having too much to say is a good problem to have.

The Kill Bill movies, to me, always felt like the most personal Tarantino movies.  They said a lot about him personally:  His pop culture likes, his angst, his fears, his passions and obsessions.  I always loved them for that reason–it was like peering directly into his id.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is very similar, but somehow feels more sincere.  In terms of my overall ranking of his movies, time will tell how I place his latest, but for now I rank it somewhere below Jackie Brown but somewhere above Inglourious Basterds.

Critics of Tarantino likely won’t have their minds changed by this movie.  Tarantino brings with him his usual habits as a storyteller, good and bad (and lots and lots of feet), so if you’re not much of a fan, you’ll probably remain that way.  If you are a Tarantino fan, but have been disappointed with most of his recent movies, I hope you’re as pleased as I was.

I saw the movie last night at Tarantino’s own New Beverly Cinema with, I must admit, a fair amount of trepidation.  But if I was going to see the movie, I was going to see it right.  As we lined up for last night’s showing, the 4:00 showing let out and Guillermo Del Toro strolled out like nothing, having watched the movie just like everyone else.  He waved, posed with fans and went on his merry way.  My wife joked that we should have had him sign a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood poster so we could have a “very rare photo of Sean Connery signed by Roger Moore” of our own.

This is me seeing it last night!  Photo courtesy of my wife.