Quentin Tarantino's greatest asset as a filmmaker has always been his love of cinema. Since the beginning of his directorial career, Tarantino's fascination with the '60s/70s Hollywood of his youth has leaked into every single one of his films in ways both minor and major. Now, after a sharp detour into the harsh reality of race with The Hateful Eight, Tarantino goes in the exact opposite direction with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his ultimate love-letter to the movie industry, and the town that keeps it running.
Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood follows Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, a big star of the 1950s westerns era who keeps close company with his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The '50s have long since come and gone, and Rick finds himself coming to the end of the '60s facing the threat of being a washed up and forgotten in the new Hollywood world order. As Rick tries to carve out a new niche for himself in the industry (and to lesser-extent, for Cliff too), at quickly becomes clear tha the bumbling ex-leading man doesn't yet realize just how much the world outside of Hollywood has changed - and that new kinds of darkness are beginning to eclipse his beloved golden town.
It's hard to describe Once Upon a Time in Hollywood without spoiling some of the stranger Tarantino twists in the film, but what can be said is that, in some ways, it is the least "Tarantino-esque" movie that the filmmaker has ever put out. Instead of the rigidly-structured "chapters" filled with dialogue-heavy scenes, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a more meandering and open-world style of film, in which Tarantino delights in taking his time showing off period piece sets and visuals, while letting his characters act as guides on this Hollywood Tours throwback. That tour can be incredibly esoteric at times (like the inner-workings of a film set, or the protocols of the stuntman world), but whenever things start to feel too "inside baseball," Taratino deftly pushes things right out of the dramatic and into the absurd. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood's best and funniest moments are often the cathartic breakaways from serious or somber ruminations on the bad and ugly sides of the Hollywood experience. That oscillation is never more important than in the final act of the movie, where Tarantino takes a hard veer away from his intricate recreation of reality, in order to remind us in shocking, gut-busting funny fashion that Hollywood is still, first and foremost, a dream factory in which better realities are manufactured.
The seemingly disparate combination of tones wouldn't work if not for the tightrope walk performance put forth by Leonardo DiCarprio. DiCaprio's Rick Dalton is a perfect composite of so many leading man cliches: onscreen he's a John Wayne type, while offscreen that Marlboro Man persona falls away to reveal a stuttering and insecure man-child, who has a bad drinking problem and few good prospects. DiCaprio goes all-in with a tortured oscillation between the dizzying highs and crushing lows of fame, and still manages to perfectly convey the humor and absurdity that comes with Rick's character. Brad Pitt is equally perfect serving as a foil to DiCaprio's Dalton, playing Cliff Booth as a classic Burt Reynolds/Robert Redford leading man type - only one resigned to the role of shadow to a man nowhere near as brave or talented as him, but who gets showered in the riches for pretending to be. It's sly commentary on the reality behind the faux "heroes" of Hollywood and the true unsung heroes propping them up - made equally more resonant (and funny) by the very meta experience of having Leo DiCaprio (one of the biggest stars in the world) playing a bumbling has-been, with Pitt (arguably the leading man of Hollywood), playing an overlooked performer who never got his due. More credit due that both DiCaprio and Pitt manage to disappear into their respective roles and achieve great chemistry together, despite the blinding light of their combined star power.
The thinnest tightrope to walk, though, is that of Margot Robbie in the role of Sharon Tate. Anyone who knows anything about Hollywood in the 1960s knows exactly what infamous piece of that town's history Tarantino is dancing around with this film - and how potentially problematic Robbie's performance as Tate could be. There's already some controversy over how much Robbie does (or does not) do in the film, but her presence is not so much that of a fully-formed character, and is instead that of a metaphor for just how fragile the ride of Hollywood fame is, and how quickly it can go off the rails. Robbie does a great job portraying the gorgeous ethereal muse that filmmakers love so much, while Tarantino manages to hang a subtle veil of ominous dread over Robbie's scenes, never letting us forget the dark fate that Tate was headed for. There are some other famous faces that pop up in roles of some classic Hollywood figures and are played for great fun, so keep your eyes peeled.
In the end, where The Hateful Eight left fans feeling upset with its brutal and unflinching look at race relations by way of soap-opera cinema, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a reminder that movies can be much-needed aversions to harsh realities, even when doing a detailed mimicry of that reality. For longtime Tarantino fans, it's a much-needed return to form; for longtime movie fans, it's a much-needed celebration of the art form that has changed so many lives. Whether the film is Tarantino's "masterpiece" or not is debatable, but if nothing else, it is the epitome of what the term "passion project" means.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is now playing in theaters. It is 2 hours 41 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references.