Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in Los Angeles 1969 but you would think otherwise as the history that occurred in this year doesn’t largely exist here but instead is a place forgotten in time, where our characters listen to outdated songs where they pass theaters promoting films that are largely forgotten, where Jose Feliciano sings “California Dreamin’” , and where vaporous bits of pop culture thrives, a completely different era with things that we have forgotten. It is an exploration of a completely different time and place, a place that doesn’t really exist anymore. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s other films, this is very much driven by cultural nostalgia, a nostalgia of classic Hollywood and for the people who were responsible for such an iconic period in film history. It is perhaps his most personal film yet as it tells more about what he likes and enjoys then about Hollywood itself.
When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens up, Rick Dalton, who is our main protagonist, is a has-been. He saw great success in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the success of Bounty Law, FBI, and plenty other great TV shows, but he hasn’t figured out a way to keep up with the ever-changing times that the late 1960s were. His film career never really took off, and he resorts to playing the baddie on shows helmed by new actors. He’s forced to make a change after meeting with Marvin Schwarez, a Hollywood agent who wants him to go to Rome and do Westerns.
Counseling him is his stuntman, Cliff Booth who has a dubious past and might be a veteran of the Korean War as Rick claimed he was a war hero. He now mostly helps his boss by doing odd jobs that he doesn’t mind doing. He believes in his boss and appears to be happy working for him when he is not hanging out in his trailer with his obedient and very loyal dog. When he isn’t working for Rick, he likes to spend his time cruising around LA where he meets a lot of interesting people like Cat, a teenage hippie whose staying at the Old Spahn Ranch with a bunch of followers and someone named Charlie but he doesn’t know that the people he’s dealing with are members of the Manson family or he has no clue that if this is the same Charlie as the odd-looking fellow that he witnessed randomly showing up to Sharon Tate’s house, Rick Dalton’s neighbor.
Rick Dalton has a house on Cielo Drive, which is the street where the actress Sharon Tate lived when she and her friends were killed by members of the Manson family. This, is a film about that tragedy, but Tarantino only gets to that when he’s ready. When it comes around to that, it’s satisfying to watch but Tarantino doesn’t really care about the actual event or the whos and hows and whys. Getting all detailed would destroy the vibe of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The film’s major assets lays on the shoulders of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose performances are both loose, funny, amicable, and very good. DiCaprio does serious work here, while Pitt gives off a very cool and mysterious vibe. They have great chemistry here, Rick and Cliff reminds me a lot of my relationship with my best friend in real life, both are just happy to hang out and chill. They’re a pair of pals content inside their own bubbles and as they go along, they are unaware of what’s going on around them until it’s too late.
Just like I mentioned above, this is a film mostly centered around nostalgia, most specifically cultural nostalgia of a time and a place that no longer exists in the modern day. Those impulses, he is usually known for, is up and center here and gives off a more personal vibe as it deals with what he likes and enjoys. He goes for vignettes and asides, several of them are incredibly long scenes of Rick filming a guest spot on a Western show where he plays the baddie of the week. It’s awesome to see how an actor can turn it off and turn it on again and then later, brutally berating himself as he forgot his lines for a particular scene. It’s exciting to watch DiCaprio do this, all this emotion in service of building a character. Sadly, that’s all we get for the course of 160 minutes as the film gets ever closer to the Sharon Tate murder.
There were stretches that I felt bored. The film begins very slow and remains that way for quite a bit, the lack of excitement and real connective tissue is very frustrating but at the same time, I was very intrigued and was very much into what was going to happen next. When the film’s only scene of violence comes around, it is absolutely horrific, exciting, and very satisfying to watch in usual Tarantino fashion. Tarantino knows violence and does violence really well, it is so horrific that it contradicts the film’s vibe of what Tarantino thinks is just a hang-out movie.
He’s always been great and a great director and this film is definitely one of his bests. It is a love letter to Hollywood and it is a love letter to classic-era Hollywood and it becomes much more satisfying if you know the real life events that the film revolves around and if you don’t know then the film won’t really mean much at all to you. It may be a tad bit long, a tad bit boring, a tad bit much but when everything comes together, it is one a heck of a movie. It may not be one of Tarantino’s masterpieces or classics but it is definitely one of his bests.
* * * *