Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is not just a love letter to Tinseltown – it’s a full-blown marriage proposal. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is his look at the motion picture and TV industry in 1969, through the eyes of both fictional characters and real people who lived during that time. This blending is one of the movie’s major strengths. There aren’t many others.
Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first film since 2015’s “The Revenant”, plays actor Rick Dalton. Rick starred on the hit 50s western series “Bounty Law” but has moved-on to guest starring as the villain on other popular TV shows. Brad Pitt takes on the role of Rick’s stuntman, chauffeur, handyman and best friend, Cliff Booth. As “Once Upon” opens, it’s February ’69. Rick is very concerned that his career is in trouble — he may be getting too old and stale to be a great actor. Cliff, whose stuntman career has come to an end, lends moral support.
Meantime, we also meet Rick’s Hollywood Hills neighbors — real-life movie star Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie), her husband, filmmaker Roman Polanski and their friend Jay Sebring. Tarantino’s script weaves the lives of these two groups in and out throughout the film.
The first act of “Once Upon” is the strongest. Tarantino’s nostalgic take on the industry he’s invested his career in, and one so many are fascinated with, is charming. And he fills every frame with the cars, the neon signs, the food brands, the radio spots, the movie posters, authentic TV shows and commercials. But it does get to be a little too much. The director literally shoves “I did my research and was able to get the rights to use all of this” in our face from the opening scene to the closing credits.
Tarantino is known for long, drawn-out films, and “Once Upon a Time…” continues that trend. There are several extended scenes in the middle of the movie that cause things to drag. Because of the real-life events element we know the narrative is building to something important. But, boy, does QT take his time getting there.
The anticipated major story shift takes place and act 3, while satisfying, doesn’t have quite as much power as intended. But fans of one of Tarantino’s other signature traits — wild, graphic violence — won’t be disappointed.
Pitt’s Booth is the most interesting character and he gives the best performance. Unfortunately, Robbie has very little to do or say as Tate. Tarantino’s decision to make her a minor character has already caused some backlash. And as for DiCaprio, since he’s playing a fading actor who overacts, it tough to judge whether he’s doing that well or, at times, overdoes it with the overacting.
Tarantino has a host of celebs playing small roles, including Kurt Russell, Lena Dunham, Bruce Dern, Timothy Olyphant and the late Luke Perry. My favorite minor character is a Hollywood agent played by Al Pacino. An entire, shorter movie on him might’ve been better. But knowing Tarantino, at some point Pacino would’ve had to resort to yelling “Say Hello to My Little Friend” before an inevitable bloodbath sequence.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is less frustrating and tedious than Tarantino’s two previous films — “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight”. But it still relies way too much on style over story.
There’s buzz that “Once Upon” could be Tarantino’s final film. I’m hoping the director has one more great film in him (this isn’t it) — but that may just be a fairy tale.