Released 2019. Director: Quentin Tarantino
QUENTIN TARANTINO IS YOUR TOUR GUIDE TO HOLLYWOOD OF 1969, where his fictional characters walk among real-life personalities and mass murderers. He will take you down a nostalgic romp through life in Tinseltown and celeb culture with so much love and affection for the bygone era you’d think Tarantino wants to marry his own movie.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a gilded retrospection when everything seemed prettier, cosier, and a little more innocent for awhile, at least on the surface. Tarantino gives a striking recreation with superb period details in the aesthetics, sight and sound of the era. Try reaching beyond the glorious time-travelling tour of LA, however, you’ll find the core of the movie rattling with the sound of a flimsy narrative held together with shiny duct tape.
We’re not talking ordinary adhesive here but five-star quality material that really holds a movie together. We’re talking about the undeniable power radiating from the star combo of two guys named Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, whom you might have heard of.
Leo plays actor Rick Dalton, whose popularity has past its peak and he’s fretting about his future in the business. Brad is his stunt double Cliff Booth who is also his driver, handyman, drinking buddy and all-round best mate.
The two are very good, individually and together. The easy camaraderie and casual masculinity has that magical quality that advertisers dream of to sell any product from beer to cigarettes to cars to mowers to power tools.
Rick Dalton is an insecure actor and Leonardo tames his own superstar persona to a credible B-grade level, finding the sweet spot just shy of turning into an accidental comedian. Brad’s achievement here is to make Cliff Booth effortlessly laidback, charming and obliging. Nobody would describe this as heavy acting but it is a performance nevertheless, one that evokes a blond and bronzed male iconography of 1970s Hollywood in the mould of Robert Redford and Steve McQueen.
Speaking of Steve McQueen, he’s played by Damian Lewis in a brief party scene at the Playboy Mansion to provide some exposition about Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski and Jay Sebring. For someone with the calibre of Tarantino this is a clumsy way to feed audience with information by a character whose name has to be flashed on screen (otherwise we wouldn’t know we’re looking at Mr McQueen). The scene feels shoehorned into the edit as if Tarantino could not find a more natural way to say what he wants to say without resorting to an awkward manoeuvre.
Then again, when you’re someone like Quentin Tarantino you can do anything you like with your movie, including rewriting history. And this is not the first time he’s done that.
In his imagination of Hollywood bathed in a sunset glow, Tarantino brings in another real-life character, Charles Manson. If you vaguely recall what happened in Hollywood in August 1969, you know things are not going to end well when one of America’s most notorious criminals pokes his nose around celebrities’ houses.
Tarantino spares us a horrific re-enactment of a bloody massacre so we don’t see the grisly end of a very pregnant Sharon Tate. Instead, Manson’s goons break into the wrong house -- Rick’s house. They find Cliff, cool and calm as ever even while confronted with crazy and armed intruders, and Cliff’s dog (a real dog, not Leo.)
The mayhem that erupts is a screaming, barking, blood-splattering, skull-crunching, human-barbeque mess played as much as a violent action orgy as a comedy. This last twenty minutes completely flip the movie upside down whilst not being unexpected in a Tarantino movie. By his standards the violence is surprisingly mild and uncharacteristically restrained. Even so…
Meanwhile, Sharon Tate is safe and sound in her house next door. The End. As Tarantino has said in various interviews he wanted to give Sharon a happy ending. Nothing wrong with that. Sharon has very few lines and very little to say, for which Tarantino has been accused of giving Margot Robbie a mute role. Tarantino’s explanation is this is not Sharon Tate’s story.
Fair enough. This movie is really a bromance between Rick and Cliff, where Sharon is but a glorified extra. Yet Tarantino inserts a long scene showing Sharon doing her errands on the streets of LA and cheerfully explains to the cinema box office lady and the usher she’s the actress in the movie they’re showing, then goes in to watch herself on the big screen. A thematically off-tangent scene which adds little to the narrative, other than to pile on Tarantino’s nostalgia, which by this time resembles an extended visit to a gift shop of Hollywood memorabilia.
The same could be said of the scene featuring Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) which also really doesn’t move the story forward unless you count seeing Cliff Booth fight with Bruce Lee as vital in Cliff’s character development. An unnecessary sequence somewhat mean-spirited to the memory of Bruce Lee, played for laughs to disguise the weakness of the actual storyline.
Despite the inherent flaws, Tarantino has obviously struck gold. Hollywood loves to see itself and Once Upon a Time is gift-wrapped for the movie industry to open a pretty package and gaze at its beautiful reflection. Any bloodstain associated with the names Sharon Tate and Charles Manson is washed away. We shall all bask in the wishful optimism and mingle among beautiful people for all is well in Tinseltown with men like Rick and Cliff around. If the sound of the title suggests a fairy tale, that’s because in this fictional Hollywood good guys live happily ever after.
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