Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Before the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino penned an open letter urging viewers to avoid spoiling Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He was right to do so. It’s not that his ninth film has an unpredictable plot or some major twist to spoil. But it does feature what is quite possibly the best movie scene of the year, and no words could ever really do it justice. It’s something that moviegoers must experience, not hear about it. Seeing it in a theater with a big audience also amplifies the fun of the film, especially when it comes to that scene in particular.
Roger Ebert once declared, “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough.” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proves this theory to be true. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, but it seldom feels dragged out or dull. Despite its sparse plot, the characters are so lively and entertaining that they make the film consistently engaging. It’s enjoyable from beginning to end, to the extent that viewers might not want it to be over. If anything, the film’s runtime is perfect because there’s an effective buildup to an epic conclusion. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood contains the greatest final act in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography.
The film boasts an impressive ensemble cast, but most of the roles feel more like cameos. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as actor Rick Dalton, who’s famous for his role in a television western series Bounty Law. Brad Pitt delivers one of the funniest performances of his career as Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double and right-hand man. Although Rick and Cliff are fictional characters, many of the actors in the film portray real people. The most notable example is Margot Robbie, who shines as Sharon Tate. In real life, Sharon Tate was one of five people brutally murdered at her home by members of the Manson Family in 1969.
Damon Herriman plays Charles Manson in the film. Some of the members of the Manson Family cult are portrayed by Madisen Beaty, Victoria Pedretti, Mikey Madison, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley (FX’s Fosse/Verdon), Austin Butler (The Dead Don't Die), Lena Dunham, Sydney Sweeney (HBO’s Euphoria), Maya Hawke (Netflix’s Stranger Things), and Harley Quinn Smith among others. Margaret Qualley is the standout of the bunch.
With so many characters in the film, it’s understandable that many stars don’t get a lot of screen time. Even Al Pacino only has a couple of scenes. When a journalist at the Cannes press conference asked Tarantino why Margot Robbie has so few lines in the film, Tarantino’s response caused quite a controversy. But Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate is a prime example of how an actor or actress is capable of bringing a role to life with more than just their words. Her meager amount of dialogue isn’t misogynistic since she’s not one of the main characters. The only real main characters are Rick and Cliff. Sharon Tate plays a pivotal role in the story, and Robbie's limited amount of screen time heightens the magnetism of her part. Robbie conveys so much with something as simple as a dance or a delighted smile. Her performance as Tate is vibrant and spellbinding. She lights up the screen every time she steps into the frame. Seeing how elated she is to watch her own performance in the movie The Wrecking Crew is the epitome of Hollywood magic.
With the combination of fictional characters and real people, it’s clear right from the start that this is another instance of Tarantino rewriting history (à la Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained). It helps if viewers are familiar with the story of the Manson Family, particularly when it comes to the Tate murders. But the film is still easy-to-follow and wildly entertaining, even for viewers who aren’t aware of the real story. It’s also a plus if viewers are familiar with films from the ‘50s and ‘60s since the movie is chock full of references, as fans of Tarantino have come to expect. But the film is so well done that viewers don’t need to understand the references to appreciate it.
The real scene-stealer of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Cliff’s dog, Brandy. She doesn’t have many scenes, but she certainly steals the show whenever she’s on-screen. It’s pretty clear why Brandy won the Palm Dog award at Cannes.
The movie is bound to be divisive among Tarantino fans, with some claiming it’s the director’s best work and others arguing that it’s one of his weakest films. One of the most notable traits of Tarantino’s films is the dialogue, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t have as much memorable dialogue as Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. But that’s part of what makes this film feel like a refreshing change of pace for Tarantino. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is thrilling and hilarious, but the humor is much more physical and visual compared to the director’s previous films.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the type of film we need right now. It’s the perfect response to the storm of remakes, reboots, and sequels that are flooding the box office. Disney might be riding the nostalgia train with movies like The Lion King, but Tarantino uses nostalgia in a much more effective manner. The film establishes a powerful sense of nostalgia for Hollywood in the 1960s while still feeling original. The art department does an impeccable job of capturing the '60s in a way that looks and feels authentic. The production design, props, costumes, makeup, and sound all make 1969 come alive. Thanks to its combination of '60s homages and a screenplay that rewrites history, the film feels simultaneously nostalgic and new.
The movie won’t work for everyone, but fans of Quentin Tarantino will not be disappointed. Even viewers who aren’t typically fans of the director will still have a great time with it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is stylish, satisfying, and sure to generate laughs. It is hands down one of the most exciting and enjoyable movies of 2019.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hits theaters on July 26, 2019.