Review: ONCE UPON A TIME IN…HOLLYWOOD fact, fiction, ​and urban legends blend in Tarantino’s matured meandering epic

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James Clay// Film Critic

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD

Rated R, 161 minutes.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprioBrad PittMargot RobbieMargaret QualleyDakota FanningTimothy OlyphantAl PacinoKurt RussellEmile Hirsch, Austin Butler

Stepping into a Quentin Tarantino film is unique. Frankly, there’s nothing quite like the experience. Warts and all, the filmmaker has been lavished with praise that few filmmakers, artists, or creators wouldn’t dare dream of achieving. He has been criticized for his sensationalized depiction of violence and the racial politics of his characters. He has also received severe backlash for his treatment of Uma Thurman on the set of KILL BILL. It’s tough to reckon with these things in 2019, and impossible to ignore, but with Tarantino’s 9th film ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, it seems something inside the filmmaker has changed.

With this film – which features Leonardo DiCaprio playing an aging (if not washed up) TV cowboy named Rick Dalton – you can’t help but wonder if Tarantino is reckoning with his past. Instead of wallowing in his old tricks of hyperbolic violence and shocking dialogue, this is a celebration of life, history, pride, and partnerships all under the umbrella of Tarantino’s private version of Hollywood.

Just as its title suggests, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is a storybook of many characters that have their own lives, romances, successes, and failures. If the filmmaker calls our bluff and stops making films after his tenth directorial effort (in favor of writing novels as he has threatened to do for years), this entry in his filmography hints that he won’t have many issues making the transition. Growing up and getting older is tough. This is a way for the filmmaker to do so gracefully.

The summer of 1969 has its own urban legends littered throughout the streets of Los Angeles. However, this isn’t real life. With flourishes of revisionist history, we discover this setting through the lens of the ned Rick Dalton and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who have been partnered together the past nine years. Their relationship has been described as “being more than a brother, less than a wife.” Dalton had his heyday back in the 1950s with a show called “BOUNTY LAW” and in a Nazi-punching movie, titled “THE 14 FISTS OF McCLUSKEY” – and Booth was by his side the whole way.

When producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers him the chance to become an Italian movie star, he is faced with a crossroads in his life and is going in an unexpected direction. After a few failed pilot seasons, Dalton comes to the realization his career is circling the drain since he’s been guest-starring on network TV week after week. Sure, it’s not ideal for a famous face living in the Hollywood hills, but Booth reminds Dalton it’s certainly not the “fate worse than death” that he makes it out to be.

It’s not a noble feat to meander around Hollywood in search of fame, booze and getting laid, but DiCaprio and Pitt bring a tenderness to the pursuit with a hilarious buddy romance for the ages. Their often confident bravado isn’t afraid to show emotion or be ashamed for failure because they have each other. Once we’re introduced to Rick’s new neighbors, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the duo begin to face the fact that new Hollywood is shoving the old guard to the dirt. Thus begins a sprawling narrative that shows a sweet spot in history before Charles Manson become a public figure. Tarantino depicts a loss of innocence, when it was commonplace to pick up a hitchhiker. This is essentially Rick and Cliff’s story that exists in a fairytale version of this storied place, in time that saw the death of actor Sharon Tate and four of her friends that infamous night.

Leonardo DiCaprio (left) and Brad Pitt (right) in ONCE UPON A TIME IN…HOLLYWOOD (Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Despite Tarantino’s embellished sensibilities, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is his most human film to date. Seemingly content to leave the past in the past and embrace the horrible facts, Polanski and Tate’s story is nothing more than a digression in Tarantino’s vision of the film industry of 1969. He’s essentially fanning out for the late actor’s memory and the stories and socialites that surround her during her final months. Robbie plays the role with sincerity that has her speaking little dialogue, yet exuding a feeling of warmth that permeates the entire film.

While Tarantino is dressing the scene with his signature touches of flavor, including Red Apple cigarettes, there are many moving parts revealed that add to the mystique the city. There’s a slice of heightened realism that the director indulges in to create a vision where fact, fiction, and farce can live happily in a world that’s his most lived-in setting since INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

Then, there is the cult aspect of it all. That’s really beside the point, and it gets the film a bit too sidetracked even though one can expect a sense of waywardness. It’s a clear choice to tease that the Summer of Love is a breeding ground for nefarious activity. This opens the door for cheap thrills, which is what Tarantino does best. The ending feels a tad in a hurry to wrap it all up after living in this setting for 161 minutes. It’s almost a cruel awakening to reality when the credits start rolling.

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is a zippy film with dialogue that resonates. It has Tarantino showing growth with his thematic material. While his films never had much to say, he has carved out his own infectious brand. This film is his most celebratory outing yet – a youthful film about growing old.

Grade: B+