“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is everything one might come to expect from a Quentin Tarantino film and yet somehow, it’s also nothing like what one might expect from Quentin Tarantino.
Reflective of a man who grew up in the movies engrossed in every aspect of filmmaking, Tarantino’s ninth feature ramps up the dialogue and nonlinear storytelling while tempering down his trademark rampages of violence for a distinctly original piece of cinema.
It’s a slow-burn ode to late 1960s Los Angeles that embraces a deep nostalgia for classic television westerns and lesser known stars whose bright futures got derailed by choice or circumstance.
Audiences are propelled into this world by bouncing around between three mainstays of Hollywood at the time: a veteran television actor trying with fledgling success to transition to the big screen, his best friend and stunt man carrying the load however needed and up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate, freshly married to director Roman Polanski.
Written as a strong duality, the natural ebb and flow between the classically handsome actor Rick Dalton and ruggedly confident stuntman Cliff Booth is a joy to watch on screen. Both DiCaprio and Pitt inhabit the roles so fully that the characters feel ripped straight from a by-gone era while audiences are still able to see the A-listers on screen as Leo and Brad at the same time.
Tarantino knows the strengths of his acting talent and rarely does he lean into them as confidentially as he does here with DiCaprio and Pitt.
Pitt’s cool machismo as Cliff perfectly offset the more manic charisma of DiCaprio’s Rick; two men’s men hanging on to their waning years on soundstages in radically different ways, yet always together.
Both actors shine during individual moments, DiCaprio especially on the set of TV western “Lancer.” But it’s together where their unlikely kinship truly elevates “Once Upon A Time” for large stretches of flashbacks and side-plots about making television in the 50s and 60s as viewers tumble towards that fateful August night on Cielo Drive.
Margot Robbie floats through “Once Upon A Time” as if she were a figment of imagination or a half-remembered dream rather than simply the actress Sharon Tate, whom Robbie portrays in the film.
It’s both a gross underutilization and a perfect utilization of the Australian actress on Tarantino’s part.
Tate delivers by a wide margin the fewest lines among the film’s primary characters, a counterintuitive, but shrewd move by the filmmaker to keep Tate masked in a golden palate of mystery while brightening up the entire feature with an effervescent physicality.
The less revealed to audiences about Tate over the course of the film, the better as Tarantino holds the late actress up as a sunny palate cleanser from the minutia of Rick and Cliff’s journeys and an ode to Hollywood ‘what could have beens.’
“Once Upon A Time” also affords small glimpses into the lives of celebrities, industry talent and wayward hippies that easily could have garnered their own films or miniseries.
Tarantino expertly uses acting icons like Kurt Russell and Bruce Dern as well as he does young up-and-comers like a mesmerizing one-scene turn from Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme and Margaret Qualley as a hippie Cliff encounters.
The fact that a rare good late-career Al Pacino appearance here is the 17th or 18th best thing about “Once Upon A Time” says a lot about this film’s incredible depth.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson shows exemplary poise adapting to a wide variety of visual styles, matching television and film looks of the era. Richardson feels just as at home in 16×9 black-and-white as he does with early color film palettes.
When “Once Upon A Time” pulls off set, the camera widens to give audiences larger perspective and enhance Los Angeles as a character in the film.
There’s also plenty of opportunity here for viewers to find Tarantino’s hidden details, nuggets of nuance that inform and/or remind the time period. These can be broad strokes like major locations dressed to the era or subtle, yet accurate touches like what movies were showing at specific theaters, which shows were airing on television on a given night or what songs were in rotation on specific radio stations on certain days.
In this regard, “Once Upon A Time” is Tarantino’s most self-indulgent film. He often languishes audiences with leisurely car rides with Cliff that linger far too long for casual viewers or diatribes about “inside Hollywood” topics like casting former heroes as villains, job-to-job rivalries and other moviemaking politics.
These musings usually don’t further the plot in any significant way but provide a welcome depth and color for those interested in being fully immersed in the world Tarantino creates on screen. It does make the film’s nearly three-hour running time a bit much for some audiences to handle, though every second is carefully and critically constructed by one of the movie business’s premiere auteurs.
Hollywood rarely loves to reward films more than they do movies about Hollywood.
A well-made Tarantino film with three A-list stars at or near the top of their game will be heralded come awards season.
Tarantino should be in the running for best director and best original screenplay for his dialogue-heavy ode to Hollywood, while both DiCaprio and Pitt have potential in the lead actor and supporting actor categories respectively.
While ideally seen in 35mm film print at select theaters, the film is far too exceptional of a movie not to be seen on the big screen any way possible.
Among Tarantino’s best work, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is certain to appear on many a best of 2019 list and could be a prime contender come awards season.