Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film is a paean to the golden age of Hollywood, complete with grizzled actors, mysterious stuntmen, earnest starlets and an underlying sense of chill that permeated the hippie era. There’s a lot to like in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, with Tarantino’s knack for detail and ability to get unexpected performances out of great actors. There are a few aspects that keep it from being peak Quentin for me, but it’s still one of the highlights of the summer.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a TV cowboy that is struggling to maintain relevance. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, his trusty stunt double, who may or may not have killed his wife. Margot Robbie is wide-eyed Sharon Tate, although she is used more as a prop than an actual character. The film tracks their trials in Hollywood-Cliff gets in an altercation with Bruce Lee, Rick struggles with his new role, Tate is on the verge of stardom-as a dark threat looms in the background, that of Charlie Manson and his acolytes. There are some truly amazing sequences, most notably Cliff’s visit to an old ranch where the family has set up camp. Tarantino can build tension and work it into situations, while still balancing biting humor and uncomfortable drama. If only Tarantino didn’t disrupt the flow with obvious nods to his foot fetish (there’s seriously like three scenes focusing on the dirty feet of a woman).
DiCaprio and Pitt both deliver great performances. DiCaprio has never had a character quite so pathetic, and he eschews his heartthrob history for a completely un-self-conscious turn. Pitt’s ease with humor and his movie-star charm hiding his character’s dark past all work to present one of his most engaging characters. There’s also a thoughtful chemistry between the two that adds depth to their story. Robbie is fine, and easily steps into Tate’s shoes (when she’s wearing them), but doesn’t really have much to do as the character just flits in and out of her scenes.
I might have enjoyed the revisionist history take on things a bit more if it weren’t a well he already dipped into with his masterpiece Inglourious Basterds. It doesn’t play as thrillingly here. Also, there’s a few too many moments where the sexual tension between a man and an underage girl is used to drive the scene. It would be one thing if it was pushing the story somewhere, but it has a whiff of exploitation that is hard to escape. That aside, the thrill ride that is the climax of the movie is Tarantino operating at full power and almost makes up for the squick factor. Almost.
My Grade – B+