Quentin Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood’s past might just be his most eccentric offering to date.
The writer/director’s love for 1960s era Tinseltown is writ large throughout Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. The neon movie theatre lights, glamourous Playboy Mansion parties, Steve McQueen mingling with Roman Polanski and Cadillacs roaming the strip; this is Tarantino’s rose-tinted vision of Los Angeles as it was, on the cusp of change and decline.
Gorgeous costume and production design lend themselves perfectly to giving the film a tangible sense of time and place, but underneath the glitz, there’s a dark storm approaching. Charles Manson’s cult followers fall deeper under his influence, with the film ticking closer to the fateful night in August ’69 when his “family” committed the murder of actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Though Manson himself appears just once (played by Damon Herriman), his disciples litter the streets of Hollywood serving as looming reminders of the inevitable tragedy to come.
And yet, they’re somewhat of a red herring, their presence largely secondary to the main crux of Once Upon a Time’s story. And if the Manson Family are disconnected from the core narrative for a solid portion, then by association, so is Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie’s scenes act as a celebration of Tate’s talent, rather than a teary-eyed remembrance of a tragic figure. But in spite of her doing an excellent job of injecting these moments with life, they ultimately feel isolated, especially in light of the direction the film eventually takes. Even more so than the Manson Family, Tate’s inclusion feels like a bluff. Tarantino has previous when it comes to revising history, something which he’s not afraid to play with here.
Instead, the focus is on Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictional ailing actor Rick Dalton and his stunt man/driver/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It’s in time spent with these two, as a pair and individually, that the film shines brightest, with Tarantino comfortable in allowing his characters to drive the narrative, as prone to tangents as it becomes. The movie flits from extended flashbacks to brief interludes and films within the film, chopping between smaller tales in the larger narrative in a way reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and sharing structural similarities with Tarantino’s own early pictures (in particular Pulp Fiction).
But whereas his 1994 sophomore effort was a tightly constructed tale, this sees Tarantino on looser form, allowing for a film which leans less heavily on plot, and rather puts its characters front and centre as they live their off-kilter lives. Pitt’s Cliff Booth oozes cool, but DiCaprio’s emotionally unstable artist with an ego Rick Dalton is an absolute treat. Even if their collective tale spins its wheels a bit, Rick and Cliff aren’t a duo that you’re likely to grow tired of any time soon, particularly when they’re paired with the usual hallmarks of a Tarantino movie: quick-witted dialogue, violence and a belting soundtrack.
Still, it doesn’t manage to reach the heady heights of Tarantino’s best work, and almost frustratingly so. There are signs that this could have been up there with his greats; sequences in which Rick and Cliff’s world collides with the Manson Family are the highlights, one tense trip to a cultist ranch, and a brawl of preposterously gruesome, wild, hyper-violent, comedically farcical levels. But instead, this falls somewhere into the mid-tier of his filmography. Still, that’s better than most mere filmmaking mortals can hope for.
Rating (out of 5):