Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Love Letter to a Time Gone By
Quentin Tarantino's ninth movie is an epic time machine back to 1969, and like Inglorious Basterds, it has its share of historical revisionism. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is filled with humor, atmosphere, astounding acting, and more references than you can count.
With a cast like this, there was no doubt in my mind that this movie was going to deliver. Dicaprio makes one of the best performances of his career as struggling actor Rick Dalton, who enjoys too many Whiskey Sours and stutters when he doesn't have a line to read. His star appeal is fading, and the times they are a-changing. DiCaprio taps into what has to be an actor's worst fear – irrelevancy – trying to stay afloat in a changing industry.
"It's official, old buddy. I'm a has-been," Dalton mutters after having been offered to travel to Italy to do spaghetti westerns. It’s either that or starring as a villain on TV-shows. Dalton's newfound hope comes in the shape of his new neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, who move in next to Dalton on – you guessed it – Cielo Drive. Roman Polanski is hot of the heels of Rosemary's Baby, and Sharon Tate is a rising star.
The plot of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is only secondary to the atmosphere and the characters. Tarantino is known to write his movies like novels and ignore conventional screenwriting technique, and it shows here, for this is a digressive movie. Two of my buddies that I went to see it with dozed off. Needless to say, we're not friends anymore. I sat next to a long-time friend (who didn't fall asleep), and we had much fun trying to catch all the references.
Tarantino takes his time. Some scenes go on for what might be too long for a general audience. There are plot points that are set up but remain unresolved. But there's also a surge in the theater as Brad Pitt's charming stuntman Cliff Booth rolls through Los Angeles – the city a character itself – past the hills and the lights of the Sunset Strip, arriving to his trailer behind a drive-in. It doesn't further the plot or the characters, but damn if it doesn't look good. The music and the cinematography – it all clicks. Could the film be shorter? Yes. Would I like to see a director's cut with a four-hour running time? Hell yes.
Tarantino is a director with an unabashed Gen-X sensibility, which doesn't always jive with today's political climate. While some have taken him to task for not being political enough when dealing with such a powder-keg of a year in American history, anyone who has seen his movies know that he doesn't play that way. Even when he took on a subject such as slavery in Django Unchained, it was more of an homage to blacksploitation flicks than something akin to Twelve Years a Slave.
And while Tarantino usually delivers heightened spectacle, this is one of his most grounded movies, following Jackie Brown. Instead, we relish in the characters' daily lives, first during a few days in February, and later on that fateful evening on August 8.
Some have criticized Tarantino for not giving Margot Robbie more screen-time. And sure, Sharon Tate is not the focal point of the movie. Robbie plays an idealized version of her. But instead of coming off as overly mythologizing or vapid, Robbie brings the character a youthful radiance, and an uplifting attitude. Tate has a bright career ahead of her, and she is the promise of a better future – making her the polar opposite of DiCaprio's downtrodden Dalton. If anything, this comes off as respectful, without taking any liberties with a real-life person. This all makes her actual fate even more tragic.
As for the people misconstruing Robbie's limited amount of lines as something of a sexist move, they should look no further to Kill Bill, Death Proof, and Jackie Brown – all with badass female characters. Tarantino isn't interested in your politics. As he responded at Cannes earlier this year: "I reject your hypothesis." Here's a great response to that debacle.
Politics aside, the movie is indeed Tarantino's love letter to Los Angeles and the movie industry. However, we rarely see movies like this get made by the Hollywood of today, and only a name with such weight can create one.
I think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino's best movie since Inglorious Basterds, and certainly one of the best flicks of this year. It's one of his most accomplished works, made by an uncompromising visionary who knows the spellbinding power of cinema.