There’s a lot to unpack in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s all of thrilling, meandering, breakneck, and patient. Like all of his films, the cast is stacked and set up to knock the audience over with their bravado and bluster. Alongside this is the usual killer soundtrack that proves Tarantino’s Spotify playlists are the best of all time. Or at least up there with James Gunn’s.
The film revolves around Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a washed-up actor who has gone from TV cowboy to TV guest spot, his legacy drying up and his funds running out as his liver swells with alcohol. His alcohol problem has led to one positive – he gets to spend all of his time with his best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth has to drive Dalton around, seeing as ol’ Rick lost his license after a significant amount of DUI tickets. There’s a line in this film that describes their relationship, describing Booth as “…a buddy that’s more than a brother, but not quite a wife.” A lot of men have these kinds of friendships, and it spoke to me. Booth doesn’t let his life interfere with his friend’s, hiding the fact that he lives in a shithole trailer behind a drive-in movie theater with his excellently trained dog, Brandy. Dalton’s fragile ego and depression over a loss of status in the Hollywood community remains the focus of both men’s lives.
All of this is absolutely hilarious. You just have to remember that it’s up against the backdrop of the Manson Family murders. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that?
See, Dalton doesn’t just live anywhere in Hollywood. He lives on Cielo drive, right next door to the home of Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate. Tate is portrayed by acting powerhouse Margot Robbie, who gives a brief but heartfelt and honest performance that took my breath away. She’s not comedic, she’s not a parody or homage. Robbie portrays Sharon Tate as someone who openly loves the way the crowd reacts to her performance. Most of her time onscreen is spent cutting in and out of a screening of The Wrecking Crew on Hollywood Boulevard, her face delighted that the work she put into the role is appreciated by the viewers. She’s not there to watch herself onscreen or revel in their praise. Tate, in this story, just wants to know that all the effort she gives to a performance is appreciated and that it matters and it makes her so very happy when it does.
I did mention that the Manson Family is involved in this film, yes? Just reminding you. Something to keep in the back of your head as you watch all of this.
What Tarantino has brought us this time is a haunted, dark look at Hollywood in the 60’s and what it inspired in people. Drug trips, the fading of the popularity of Westerns, lavish Hollywood, and the ever-looming threat of danger, it’s all here. At the heart of it is a group of insecure, over-paid people that just want to keep entertaining the public, but the real emotional core of the film is the relationship between Booth and Dalton. They truly care about each other, a relationship that evolved over the course of several years together on television and even longer as a team that just never knew when to quit. A loving portrayal of the era, a harshly honest portrayal of star-power versus practical work, It’s a film that feels meandering for so much of the runtime, wonderfully able to exemplify the era yet unwilling to rush to the finish line. This is the most coherent film Tarantino has made since Inglorious Basterds, and it’s the best he’s had since then as well. Depressing, uplifting, ugly, sexy, and wonderfully ridiculous, it’s a film that’ll leave you laughing even as your addiction to the entertainment itself sinks in and you realize that so much of the emotion is your fault.
I loved it, and I can’t wait to see it a second time.