The worst thing you can say about Quentin Tarantino is that he has no restraint. Most of the criticism of his work—the awkward race and gender dynamics, sometimes-gratuitous violence, marathon-lengths—come from an inability to hold himself back, to recognize that there are sometimes themes he is ill-suited to tackle and scenarios that he allows to spiral from daring to worthlessly exploitative. These missteps are often made all the more glaring by the try-hard youthful pretension in his writing, almost like he is daring you to get mad at his work but genuinely not knowing why you would be.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is not try-hard. It is a shockingly faithful recreation of the last year of Hollywood’s Golden Age; a campy and surprisingly resonate character piece showing two longtime friends at a depressing midpoint in their lives. These two friends are washed-up television star Rick Dalton and his stunt double turned driver Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt respectively in their first on-screen collaboration. But you probably already know this; the fact Tarantino has managed to cast perhaps Hollywood’s last two male superstar is a delightful reinforcement of the movie’s core theme of the cinema world’s constant churn.
Pitt and DiCaprio are both military-grade charismatic, and the movie’s best moments are when they are simply existing in this stunning recreation of Hollywood. Tarintino is a noted Film Geek, and the level of detail present in every second of this movie is downright stunning. From production design to level of research, this is a phenomenally realized world. If the entire movie’s runtime was just Pitt and DiCaprio hanging out in this place, learning about their place in the world while driving around the streets of Los Angeles, it would still be a good movie. This is two actors at the top of their game, and an obsessive historian of Hollywood at his most joyously unrestrained.
Of course, there’s more to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood than goofy times and recreated movie houses. Amidst the backdrop of Dalton trying to reinvent himself, we are slowly introduced to Sharon Tate (played amicably by Margot Robbie in a shamefully underwritten role). Add in Dalton’s budding relationship with a girl living among the Manson Family, and...well...you can probably see where this is going. The weight of the Helter Skelter murders hang over this film like a slowly encroaching darkness, adding menace to what is otherwise a lighthearted and nuanced story about coming to grips with middle age. When the two plot threads combine explosively in the film’s final act, it’s all the more engrossing because of the time Tarantino takes to build up the stakes.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a deeply nostaglic film, one that harkens back to supposedly fond times of Hollywood and American monoculture. It is mostly unconcerned with the fact that the era it so lovingly recreates was also deeply chaotic and lopsided in its bounties; the film’s only mention of Vietnam is peripathary and it never engages with the gender and racial revolutions of the time, instead casting the Mason murders as the final perversion of an otherwise bright time. I suspect this simply isn’t what interests Tarantino about this era; instead it’s the art being created and the culture that surrounded it. Fair enough, and its hard to deny the immense skill he uses to craft this tribute. Yet the disconnect becomes impossible to ignore by the end of the film, after a barrage of revisionist history and violence that makes the parts of 60s society that Tarintino isn’t interested in engaging with all the more apparent. That’s to say nothing about an utterly bizarre wrinkle to Pitt’s character that makes the film’s underwritten female characters all the more apparent.
This is a film that makes you want to stop complaining, to take in all the delights and technical marvels it presents and just roll with it. If you stop struggling with the current there is so much to enjoy. The world it creates is an undeniable achievement, and the level of visual ambition on display is a testament to Tarintino’s maturity as a director. It’s also just immensely fun, thanks to spectacular performances and vibrant cinematography. Yet while it is undeniably the least abrasive of Tarintino’s films, there is an undercurrent of confounding blindness to the whole project. Tartintino would prefer I use the term “audacious”, but I worry that’s being too generous.
It’s a B+ movie