Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
Rated R, 161 minutes.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Mike Moh and Austin Butler
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to illustrating horrific events in history and then adding his unique brand of fantastical embellishment. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS diverted wildly from the course of true life events, but it’s a raucous spin on revisionist world history nonetheless. Once again ripping from the headlines, the audacious auteur makes historical context the backdrop for two men’s mid-life career crises in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. Only this time, the dastardly daring dramedy falls short of true genius and greatness.
Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend/ stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) have fallen on hard times. They were once part of a wildly successful television series, but now are struggling to find the next big gig, jumping from show to show, taking guest starring spots where possible and mostly as the heavy. It hasn’t been good for their brand as Rick’s been typecast as the villain – a real life role Cliff’s been saddled with over the circumstances in which his wife died – in a town where heroes prevail. And if Rick isn’t working, neither is Cliff, who’s been relegated to doing assistant work. Cliff chauffeurs his buddy around town and does menial household chores, which in true stuntman style has him scaling walls and driving fast on the Hollywood Hills’ curvy streets.
The pair are caught at a crossroads with their dwindling opportunities. However, things begin to change once Rick notices his new next door neighbors, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). They don’t share much interaction, but her presence adds a splash of hope and light, speaking to the era’s innocence. On the opposite end of that spectrum, also breezing into town are Charles Manson’s (Damon Herriman) followers, an intimidating gang of dirty hippies, who’ve targeted Sharon’s home for their next act of ungodliness.
The first two-thirds of the picture are thematically grounded in a sense of introspection, rumination and contemplation. Tarantino emphasizes the mundane lives of his three protagonists, walking us through their days. Rick spends his time drinking heavily, running lines and melting down both on and off set. Cliff’s limited days on set include him showing a thing or two to blowhard Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). His off the clock hours have him driving home late, servicing his dog’s culinary needs and schlepping across town to pick up his boss. Sharon constantly radiates the warm rippling sound of rock n’ roll, whether that be in public at parties, or in the privacy of her home. She also curiously catches one of her films, tucking into the velvety plush seat of a Westwood theater, boosting her ego through audience response.
While not quite a send-up (like BOWFINGER or L.A. STORY), nor a darkly comedic satire (like THE PLAYER), Tarantino’s feature dips into farce a few times. It’s lively and electric when he shows Rick’s films – fake films like one in which he plays a one-eyed Nazi-killing rebel with a flame-thrower, or real films like THE GREAT ESCAPE where he’s inserted in the style of FORREST GUMP. Tarantino’s attempts to keep character portrayals restrained instead of unabashedly lampooning Hollywood types works to varying effects, despite the narrative occasionally drifting towards broader comedy undertones. Sycophants and brown-nosing co-stars are well represented. The conversation between Rick and his young precocious eight-year-old co-star is humorous and heartfelt.
The climactic third act, however, places shock and schlock at the forefront, which, in turn, negates much of what the first two-thirds sets up thematically with the characters and the narrative. The provocateur’s ode to L.A. devolves into something shallow, cheap and exploitative. It may be bombastically Tarantinoian to choose the route he does. Only it’s done at a detriment to the sentiments expressed in the first place. Many thought-provoking questions abound – the biggest dealing with the fate of one specific character – making us ponder their impact from a macro and micro standpoint.
Though the narrative sputters to make its connection, the nuanced and layered performances from the actors make the proceedings entertaining. Robbie pivots her character’s journey inward, focusing on Sharon’s spirited personality in subtle ways greater than any copious amounts of dialogue could capture (though, if given the opportunity, she’d nail that jazzy cadence too). DiCaprio provides the contrast to Robbie’s quiet reserve with his more showboaty role as the neurotic has-been. Pitt turns in solid work, delivering his bravado-tipped lines with a droll, sarcastic flair.
Much of the film coasts on the nostalgic setting of the late 60’s – a time synonymous with change. Not only is this sentiment found in the corners of the script, it’s there aesthetically. Tarantino immerses us into the world of 1969, achieved through Arianne Phillips’ costume designs and Barbara Ling’s production design – all of it captured beautifully through Robert Richardson’s cinematography.
Perhaps more than any of Tarantino’s other films, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD walks a fine line between sincere and self-indulgent, staggering into the latter frequently. Fittingly, its characters and the titular town itself echo those same qualities. That’s showbiz.
ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD opens on July 26.