When we hear the phrase “once upon a time…” we think of fairy tales. We think of princesses living in a castle on the top of a mountain. We think of a knights in shinning armor and his noble steed. We think of witches, goblins, fairies, talking animals and other mythical creatures. We also know the story, about the struggling damsel in distress who gets saved by the knight at the end. It’s a genre Disney made infamous and one we know like the back of our hand.
Over the last 27 years, writer/director Quentin Tarantino has dabbled in many genres, sometimes in the same film. He’s done gangster movies, heist movies, kung-fu, westerns, war, and even anime. For his ninth feature film, Tarantino has made a Hollywood fairy tale, only our princess is a washed up actor living in a mansion on Hollywood hill, our knight in shining armor is his stunt double, and the noble steed is an adorable pit bull.
Tarantino takes us to 1969 Hollywood, where we are introduced to actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick used to be a big T.V. and movie star, yet his star is fading, and the only person who he has left is Cliff, who drives Rick around and has no problem getting into a fight and winning. The two struggle to maintain their fame throughout the change that is taking place in Hollywood.
The structure of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is an interesting one and oddly one of Tarantino’s least ambitious. A majority of the film looks at two days-in-the-life of Rick and Cliff, February 8th, 1969 and February 9th, 1969. During these two days, we watch as Rick gives it his all to save his career by being cast as a villain on a show, while Cliff fails to find work and instead fixes the antenna at Rick’s house and becomes enamored by a cute hippie girl named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who just happens to be a part of Charles Manson’s “family”. Tarantino also shows us a glimpse look at the life of Rick’s neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, who’s star continues to shine brighter than anyone’s), who is the hot, young star around town and has just released a movie. The film then jumps six months into the future, where Kurt Russell narrates what has happened in the life of Rick and Cliff to catch us up, where we find out that Rick can’t afford to pay Cliff anymore and in celebration if their departure as actor/stunt man, the two plan on binge drinking until they blackout, but that doesn’t go quite as planned. Save for a couple flashbacks, it’s a relatively straightforward structure, a rarity in a Tarantino film, as he is infamous for a non-linear structure.
What this structure does is put most of the movie’s focus on Rick and Cliff, their lives, and their friendship. Unlike most Tarantino movies, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is set in the real world. There aren’t any ninja assassins or any over-the-top, bloody violence like usual Tarantino. What we are dealing with is a man who is struggling with his fallen stardom and having to take a backseat, something he has never done before in his career. The first part of the movie felt like a meta-reflection inside the mind of Tarantino. Rick has made violent westerns and movies where he lights Nazi’s on fire that people really liked, much like Tarantino has with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, and yet his career is fading, so much so that Rick considers himself a wash-up and doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. There is a moment where Rick is getting ready to shoot a scene as the villain of a T.V. show and he begins to talk to a young actress who is in the show with him. Rick is reading a book and the little girl asks him about it. The book’s hero is named Easy Breezy, and the hero used to be great but now, according to Rick, “he’s not the best anymore” and “becomes more useless everyday.” Rick is Easy Breezy and Tarantino is Rick. Tarantino recognizes that he was once the best filmmaker in the world (debatable, I.M.O.), but in this world of new filmmakers and comic book movies and franchises running the box office, original content like Tarantino’s is becoming a rarity and almost becoming obsolete. It is fascinating to see Tarantino show us this part of his mind and be this vulnerable with his audience.
The friendship between Rick and Cliff is really what drives Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. Though the two of them aren’t in the movie together for a lot, you can tell these two men care about each other and their chemistry is palpable. Cliff has no problem being the guy behind the scenes. He doesn’t want the accolades and the attention. He’ll do the dirty work for Rick while Rick gets the praise. But Rick recognizes that he wouldn’t be the star he is without the work that Cliff does, on set and at home. Tarantino hasn’t showed this much heart and emotion in a film since Jackie Brown.
DiCaprio and Pitt are outstanding in their performances. DiCaprio, in what might be the funniest performance of his career, channel’s the struggling Rick perfectly. There are moments that will make you laugh out loud and moments that make you feel for the once shining star. Pitt brings his charm and swagger to Cliff. Cliff is a brute. A guy who is scared of no one and will never back down from a fight, even if he’s fighting Bruce Lee, yet is a complete sweetheart to those who don’t mess with him. He’s not afraid to do the dirty work and not afraid to face the Manson crew by himself. Both performances should earn awards consideration at the end of the year.
The friendship between Rick and Cliff and the struggle of Rick’s career work perfectly with Tarantino’s idea of a fairy tale. Tarantino gives us a gorgeous look (especially in 70mm) at Los Angeles and Hollywood in 1969, with bright, colorful, authentic sets and costumes, shooting L.A. like a dreamland. Sharon Tate acts as a fairy godmother-like creature, floating throughout the land on top of the city with a smile that will melt your soul. And then there is our princess and our knight in Rick and Cliff, along with Cliff’s noble steed, his pit bull, who might be the M.V.P. of the whole movie. This all comes together in the films final act, which is the film’s strongest segment and acts like the knight slaying the dragon to save the princess. It is a scene I do not want to spoil in this review, but it is a scene you won’t forget.
Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is a movie I cannot wait to see again. It is a lot of a movie and a movie I cannot wait to experience again and breakdown even further. Only time will tell how it will rank in the lexicon of Tarantino movies, but for now, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is one of the best movies of 2019.
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