Film: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Since Quentin Tarantino’s entire career feels like an extended homage to cinema history—with reverential forays into the gangster, martial arts, and western film genres that inspired him—it only makes sense he would eventually do a film about filmmaking. The result, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), is everything you would expect: the impressive visual palette, the annoying indulgences, and everything in between.

It’s the late 1960s, and former popular TV star Rick Dalton (Leonard Dicaprio) is an actor on the downswing. After he left his popular western Bounty Law, a string of films failed to turn him into the next Steve McQueen. Now he’s squeaking by playing villains on prime-time television shows. Forever at Dalton’s side is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a former war hero with a checkered past, now clinging to Dalton’s payroll as his driver, factotum, and stalwart best friend. Rick’s heyday may be well behind him, helped in no way by reckless drinking, but he’s still striving for greatness in the industry. The fortuitous arrival of new next-door neighbors—hot young film director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)—could be a career boon, if he can only make the acquaintance. But it may also lead to a fateful confrontation with the Manson Family.

As usual, Tarantino’s passion for his work is written into every frame—perhaps to a fault. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film by insiders, for insiders, full of deep-cut industry lore that may please nostalgia buffs but will likely leave others cold. I have to admit, it pushed a few of my throwback-viewing buttons, since it situates a fictional viewpoint into what becomes a playful secret history of Hollywood. Some of the star cameos and pop-culture references are indulgent, but they’re also fun, especially for old-school Easter-egg hunters. There’s a certain appeal to me, for example, to watching Cliff go home to his run-down Van Nuys trailer for mac and cheese and an episode of Mannix, or Rick getting spliced into a classic scene from an alternate-reality The Great Escape. At the same time, Tarantino overplays his hand more than once, as actors posture at each other on western sets or render themselves unsympathetic with entitled, over-indulgent behavior after work. Lurking under these surface shenanigans is the sinister background radiation of the Manson cult, an angle that will probably generate more suspense for folks familiar than I was with the history Tarantino is playfully scrambling. For me, Cliff’s trip out to the Spahn ranch was basically just an exercise in identifying the all-star cast of up-and-coming stars populating its hippie commune.

It all builds to a wild final act that is nothing if not Tarantinoesque, by turns ridiculous, darkly funny, and excessive, hinting at a potential turning point for our down-and-out Hollywood heroes. Overall, the film did enough clever, entertaining things to hold my interest. But it also, like Hollywood itself all too often, felt a little hollow, superficial, and self-indulgent to warrant much more than a half-hearted recommendation.

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