From its announcement, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood threatened to be Tarantino’s most self-indulgent work. No matter his choice of subject, his love of cinema shines through each one of his films, and it’s a surprise it has taken this long for him to make one explicitly about the movie industry itself. That initial threat came true, and this is Tarantino at his most uninhibited. But like Fellini before him, this is a man who justifies his excess through the sheer artistry of it all.
This is the story of fading star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt respectively. One of Tarantino’s better talents as a writer is his ability to capture close friendships, and this pair is one of his tighter bonds. These two characters convincingly have each other’s backs even as the film draws attention to the disparity of their situations.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate lends a certain enigmatic quality to the experience. She is never explored in the same way Rick and Cliff are, but that’s the bait. This film rides off creating dread due to our knowledge of what actually happens to her. Though these stories rarely intersect, her mere presence gives an endgame to a narrative that would otherwise seem aimless. Tarantino successfully plants the climax in our mind purely due to history.
The distance makes sense here. This was a real woman with aspirations of stardom cut down before we ever really knew her. Most of us have only heard of her as a murder victim and it’s a struggle to picture her beyond that framing. To be any closer to Tate would read as inauthentic, as the tragic irony is the fact we want to live in a world where we could have known her but also only care because we can’t. Robbie playing this role so charmingly only makes that harder to swallow.
While that particular longing plays out on the meta-level, it is that same feeling that guides Rick and Cliff. This is a narrative of longing for alternative realities, Rick desperate for a roll that will grant his second wind as he is haunted by memories of the almost successes. Cliff seems desperate for any work at all, and that guides him to perform unfulfilling tasks. He’s recklessly eager to play the hero that places himself in danger.
This mixture of longing and stardom produces a bittersweet atmosphere. Tarantino appears at his most optimistic here, even as he laments loss. To see a child actress commend Dalton for a good performance at the end of a hard day, or Tate gleefully listening to an audience enjoy her movie, there’s something inspiring here that is only brought down by the constant reminder that there could have been more.
This movie is stuffed with scenes that would seem unnecessary if the minor characters weren’t so immediately able to steal their scenes. Bruce Lee is cast as a braggart dying to grandstand at any opportunity, and the result is hilarious. The child actress first appears reading her script and tells Rick of all the extreme ways she prepares for a role, a scene that almost reads as subtle mocking of DiCaprio’s experience with method acting. Excess works as long as it’s fun.
Tarantino is desperate for any opportunity to use stylistic flairs, and the Hollywood setting gives him an easy excuse. We get constant cuts to Dalton’s works, allowing the grainy colors of old Hollywood alongside occasional dips near the Academy ratio. Even the more mundane moments are loaded with stellar framing, long takes, and the rare jump cut. The whole film is cast with the sort of saturation that suggests its placement within the era it tackles.
Tarantino feels at home playing around in 1969. This timing allows him to again explore his recent fascination with the Western, focusing in on an actor whose career is declining just as that legendary genre is starting to fade. The sets and costumes are peppered with reminders of the era, with Tarantino’s ear for music helping transform this into an effective nostalgia piece for an era I never lived through.
Like the actual Sharon Tate, this is a story that will be hard to talk about without jumping to the ending. I’m not going to dive into the details in a simple review, but this is perhaps the best finale of a director who always sticks the landing. While I love nearly all his works, they usually carry a certain distance that feels cold. This is his most straightforward emotional work, and I honestly felt myself near tears even as I laughed. All of the story’s ambling is justified by the payoff.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among Tarantino’s best because it allows him to play with his favorite subject matter with no reservations. What once were sly winks and nods now serve as surface text. This is a work that’s joyous and affirming in Tarantino’s uniquely twisted way, even as darkness teeters on the edge. The Hollywood system is painted as wondrous as it is frustrating. It’s rare that I walk out of a theater longing for more, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood manages that even as it gleefully plays in its own excess.
5 Stars Out of 5