The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood transports you back to the 1960s for a love-letter to Hollywood showing the difficulty of making it in the competitive town and the importance of friendship. In early 1969, former western TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) have to rediscover their careers as part of the changing landscape.
As a movie about the film and TV industry, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t allow you to forget it. Beyond the throwback look and recreating a 1969 Hollywood, Tarantino loads the movie with hundreds of references to old-time actors, movies, and shows. It will require a vast knowledge of the history of the business to catch them all. But, the first two acts of the film also focus on showing the inner-workings of the industry. Dalton’s latest guest-star work on a TV show takes up most of his story, while Tarantino also works in authentic-looking footage from his prior work as the star of his own show. There’s also Cliff’s nonexistent stuntman career and understanding of how he became blacklisted by certain people in his profession. In either instance, Tarantino smartly leans on the shoulders of his co-leads, and they don’t disappoint.
DiCaprio is firing on all cylinders in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It is always impressive when someone as talented as Leo in real life can be a great mediocre actor for a part. Rick Dalton’s best days are behind him, and the movie shows him struggling to come to terms with this fact. It leads to some great moments from DiCaprio that show him breaking down after messing up again, but also flashes of brilliance that impress the whole crew he’s working with. While Rick may be front and center, Cliff is the heart of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in many ways. Pitt sinks into this character to be the abrasive and confident stuntman. There’s even a great joke about Cliff being too good looking to be a stuntman, which has arguably been why Pitt hasn’t been able to go into full character actor mode by Hollywood. He’s got the charm and looks of a leading man, but Pitt once again shows here that he is more than that.
Meanwhile, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also includes the early days of Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) movie career. As the neighbor to Rick, Sharon’s own story is clearly the C-plot here. The film doesn’t shine that much of a spotlight on her or what she wants. Instead, it periodically checks in on her to remind us she’s still a factor in the story. The bulk of her scenes come in the second act as she goes into a theater and is filled with glee watching and hearing other people enjoy her work. The biggest difficulty with this though is Tarantino’s decision to use actual footage of the real-life Sharon Tate acting and then immediately cutting to Robbie reacting. There is undeniably a resemblance, but they are not identical. This can break the sense of realism that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood otherwise has.
As for the rest of the all-star cast, it is the lesser-known ones who truly stand out. Mike Moh only gets a few minutes of screen time as Bruce Lee, but he is fantastic at recapturing his essence. Margaret Qualley also has a limited role as a hippie part of Cliff’s story, and her warmth makes her standout. Austin Butler is incredibly creepy as Tex. Then there’s also Julia Butters as one of Rick’s young co-stars Trudi who immediately seems poised to do bigger things as she effortlessly holds her own opposite DiCaprio.
This is still a new Quentin Tarantino movie we’re talking about here though, even though it also doesn’t feel like one. He always assembles an incredible cast and has not let up on his signature style, which features a lot of talking, plenty of profanity, multiple perspective stories, and usually quite a bit of violence. This only makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood all the more surprising. It is mostly a warm film about the ups and downs of a career and the friendships you need to make it through difficult times. It’s a surprising but welcomed change of pace for Tarantino. He still manages to incorporate his long takes and overall stunning cinematography by Robert Richardson into the movie though so it still looks like one of his films.
Where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did lose some of its luster was in the scope of the story. Tarantino’s movies are known for big stories with lots of moving parts that can build to them all tying together nicely, but he doesn’t pull it off as well as he has before here. There’s the Hollywood inside baseball story that is happening for the first two acts as seeds of Charles Manson being around are planted. But, the way Tarantino has to bring this all together doesn’t quite click. This results in the movie feeling a bit bloated in its nearly 3 hour runtime. It doesn’t help either that the third act is where the director injects Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with his usual sense of violence. While it is expected from Tarantino to a certain degree, it feels tonally out of place with the previous two hours of the movie.
All in all, it is easy to say that Tarantino has another hit on his hands with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The movie has an incredible soundtrack, good humor, and a mostly warm spirit. DiCaprio and Pitt are deserving of some awards recognition later in the year too. It might not be a top-tier Tarantino film, but it is pretty darn close and great on its own merits.
4 ticket stubs out of 5
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Did you see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? If so, let us know what you thought in the comments! But remember, we’re all friends here, so keep the conversation civil. If you want more coverage on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, check out the crew’s review in this episode of Friends and Film!