By: BabyRuth (Two Beers) –
Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited ninth feature film, his second to last if we are to believe his ten and done retirement plan, transports viewers to the final days of the Golden Age of Hollywood and is his most ambitious and personal yet.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a former leading man on the downswing of his career, now only able to pick up guest spots on television shows playing the bad guy. His loyal stunt-man/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is always nearby, whether performing the risky stunts Dalton’s cowboy-hero can’t, or more frequently of late, chauffeuring Rick around from sets to his Hollywood Hills home, which juuust so happens to be right next door to hotshot director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his new bride Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) on Cielo Drive. Ut-oh…
Who would have thought that a Quentin Tarantino film that (at least in part) tackles the Manson family murders would be his most emotional, heart-warming, and, not joking, sweetest film? When it was announced that Once Upon a Time… would revisit the tragic events of that August night in 1969, I, along with many others I’m sure, cringed at the thought of a graphic recreation of a horrific crime for the sake of entertainment.
But instead, what we get with Once Upon a Time… is a sunny, mostly light-hearted, and often quite funny buddy flick starring two of the biggest current movie stars in roles perfectly suited for them. DiCaprio and Pitt revel in their characters and turn in arguably career-best performances that I predict won’t be forgotten in a few months when awards season rolls around. As the increasingly insecure Dalton, DiCaprio taps into a vulnerable place, and it’s so believable one even forgets that this is a guy who only dates women young enough to be his daughter and has a “no eye-contact” policy. As great as DiCaprio is (and he is great), it’s Pitt as Booth, the coolest and toughest guy in the room (even when Bruce Lee is in the room, or rather, outside the room), who steals the show. Partly due to Tarantino writing one hell of a character, and even more due to Pitt’s effortless embodiment, Cliff Booth is one of those memorable characters that audiences will love (despite a wrench of caveat thrown in mid-film about Booth’s past. That whether or not it is true is never answered, is an interesting little game Tarantino plays with the audience.).
Pitt and DiCaprio each have stand-out moments – DiCaprio in a few touching scenes with a precocious young co-star who would have been played by Dakota Fanning fifteen years ago (Julia Butters filling the role now) and Pitt in an intense standoff sequence at the Spahn Ranch, inhabited by the Manson family which includes, you guessed it, Dakota Fanning (as Squeaky Fromme). But as good as they each are solo, it’s in their scenes together where the real magic happens. There are so many instances of how great their chemistry is throughout the film, but my personal favorite is when the pair are simply having a couple beers while watching an episode of a television show that both appeared on, Dalton as the star and Booth as his stunt double. Providing a commentary track before there was such a thing as a commentary track, it’s so relaxed and delightful I just wanted it to go on and on.
The slow and easy tone often makes the film feel like a slice-of-life comedy, that is until Sharon Tate appears and reminds the audience of the foreboding darkness that lurks around the corner.
There’s been much debate over Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tate. Not the quality of the performance (brilliant and thoughtful as always) or her resemblance to her real-life counterpart (not limited to looks but also the similarity in the two real-life women’s paths: both promising young actresses as talented as they are/were beautiful. Also, now that we’re comparing, both have also been the noted bright spot of critically panned films.), but the lack of Tate’s backstory and limited lines of dialogue, the late actress represented merely (in some critics’ words) as an abstract ideal rather than an actual person. I personally disagree with this idea (and yes, I too “reject that hypothesis”). Robbie’s Tate is the heart of the film – full of life and childlike wonder, a stark contrast to Dalton’s jaded falling star. The most time we spend with her is in a scene in a movie theater showing one of her films (featuring footage of the real Sharon Tate) while she joyously watches from the audience. With few words, Robbie shines, embodying the late actress, and succeeds in respectfully portraying her essence while making her fate all the more heartbreaking. (It’s worth noting that Tarantino asked for and received the blessing of Sharon Tate’s sister prior to production of this film.)
While we’re on the subject of Tarantino’s depiction of women in his films, I just feel like here is where I need to raise a toast to one of his best female characters: Brandy (played by Sayuri the pitbull), arguably, no, forget that, THE hero of this film, even more of a badass than Cliff Booth himself.
Once… clocks in at nearly three hours. While that sounds like a lot of time and there is quite a bit of meandering, the immersive world of 1969 Hollywood that Tarantino builds is one that you won’t mind getting lost in. Everything about it from the period-perfect sets, to the clothing, to the music, to the vintage commercials and products is extremely well-done with the utmost attention to even the tiniest details. It’s clear that this period is one that Tarantino loves at least as much as women’s feet (more on that in a minute) and he affectionately pays tribute to it. It’s impossible to soak it all in in one watch and unlike several of Tarantino’s other works, I look forward to repeat viewings.
It’s difficult to talk about this film without spoiling the ending, so let me just say this: it’s not what you think it’s going to be. Well, unless you think it’s going to be insanely violent, because that it most certainly is, but not in the way one would expect given the subject matter. The title provides a hint, but really, if you haven’t seen the film, DO NOT read anything about it (well, unless this review which you obviously already are, WHAT ARE YOU DOING??) In hindsight, Tarantino’s telling of the night of August 9th, 1969 is sneakily a lot more effective than any other way it could have been depicted.
I must stress again, for fair warning: the last act gets violent. Super bonkers, Looney Tunes violent. I actually got carded before heading into my screening (which is hilarious considering I’m older than two R-rated movie-goers combined but hey, I WILL FREAKING TAKE IT!) which clued me in on what to expect, but for a minute there, I seriously thought Q.T. was going to hold back on his usual ultraviolence. Silly me!
As usual, and perhaps more than ever, the film is packed with many, many cameos of longtime Tarantino regulars and first-time familiar faces in small but memorable parts. Again, don’t spoil it for yourself by scrolling through the cast list on your IMDB app as it’s more fun to see them unexpectedly (okay, some expectedly) pop in and out.
I don’t know if Tarantino is attempting an in-joke on his very well-known foot fetish (which is quite possible since the film has several meta-moments that seem to be a reflection on the writer/director himself and his work – just wait for a late monologue about violence as entertainment) or if he seriously can’t get a handle on it but, dude, chill out with the damn feet. It’s weird. And distracting.
Hippies hate water.
He also seems to have a thing for women that snore. You are a weird, weird man, Quentin Tarantino.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is one of those movies that people will either love or hate, but that will most certainly be talked about for a long time to come. Place me firmly in the “loved” camp. It surprised the hell out of me.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every n-word (just kidding! You may not believe this, but there are none!)
Take a Drink: for every crane-shot
Take a Drink: every time Rick complains about “hippies”
Take a Drink: for every vintage commercial
Take a Drink: extended driving scene
Take a Drink: whenever a woman snores
Take a Drink: every time Rick stutters
Take a Drink: for every cameo
Pour one out: for Luke Perry’s final film appearance
Do a Shot: for every close-up of woman’s foot. Take Two: if the foot is dirty
Do a Shot: for my favorite line of dialogue this year (so far): “It still works, thank God.”