Once Upon A Time In ... Hollywood

Jacob Richardson | 17/08/2019

Meandering, witty, funny, violent and above all endearingly nostalgic, Once Upon A Time In … Hollywood continues a winning streak from Tarantino while also feeling vastly different from anything else in his body of work.


Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a washed up soap star in the late 60’s, struggling to break a downward cycle of villainous guest star spots on new pilots. His only friend is the stunt double from the tv hit that made his name; Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who now performs more of a driver / handyman role for Rick. When Rick is presented with the option to go to Rome to make spaghetti westerns, he faces a crisis of the self. It’s compounded by his famous new neighbours Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and he spends a long day on set of a new tv pilot dissecting whether or not he should make the move. Cliff, meanwhile, drives an enchanting hippy girl to her home at Spahn Ranch, where he meets the followers of Charles Manson - the same Charles Manson who is set to order his followers to murder Rick’s new neighbours.


Tarantino doesn’t concern him too much with actual plot here; the dramatic mechanisms are few and far between. Instead, this feels like an introspective and nostalgic leisurely drive through the Hollywood of the time; a Hollywood obsessed with soaps, with movie stars as opposed to actors, and with a somewhat acrimonious relationship with the progressive left. Whether its festishising the old cinema experience, belting a ripper soundtrack from old cadillac radios, or having rick blend his own margaritas and float around his pool, Tarantino’s love for the period is undeniable. While his somewhat loose fitting dramatic structure doesn’t always have you gripping the edge of your seat, you never quite lose interest; a testament to Tarantino’s unparalleled command of the cinematic language. 


For a movie so fixated on the idea of movie stardom, one couldn’t imagine two more appropriate actors in the lead. Pitt, as the aged and somewhat rundown Cliff Booth, is immensely chill. Harkening back to the golden age of cinema, when it wasn’t lattes and earpods but rather who had the balls to do the next crazy stunt, he reminds you of every gaffer or stunt guy you’ve ever met on a set. His relationship with the polar opposite Dalton, who DiCaprio plays as a deeply self-conscious, capricious narcissist, speaks more broadly to the spectrum of roles on any movie set. DiCaprio seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and Tarantino gives him a number of scenes where he can really stretch both his dramatic and comedic range; a meltdown in his trailer and an on-set hostage situation both springing to mind as prime examples. 


The supporting cast is, as one expects from a Tarantino film, incredible. With little dialogue, Robbie does a lot with her take on Sharon Tate. Margaret Qualley, too, is a standout, and Kurt Russell brings some humor. Some barely register, with fleeting jaunts across the screen (Damian Lewis in particular as Steve McQueen) that seem more like checkboxes to ground the period more so than having any impact on the actual story. 


In the end, though, the fleetingness of some of these appearances doesn’t feel like it matters. Nor do the occasional tonal discrepancies, or periods that slow to a snail’s pace. That is because the central relationship here, between Dalton and Booth, and the meticulously recreated and lovingly depicted Hollywood of the late 60’s is so much fun to spend time in, you won’t even notice; in fact, you’ll wish you could spend more time in Tarantino’s fairytale Hollywood.


At times slow, but undeniably an enjoyable experience. When you’ve got this star power, this director and such an undeniably nostalgic take on the period, how can you go wrong?