Maybe it was because of the way I was raised, but I’ve always associated the phrase “Once Upon a Time..” with a classic fairy tale or fantasy. As I’ve grown older, this hasn’t changed and it has made watching movies like “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time In America” even more enjoyable, as both films can now be seen as a fantastical, almost magical retelling of the old west and the life of a gangster respectively. Both films find the superb in the forgotten and share that love for a time long since passed with us. Now we can add another film to that series of modern fantasies with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Tarantino’s love letter to 1960s Hollywood does its best to encompass every aspect of the time period, ranging from being hammy and over the top to stylish and subtle, even occasionally dipping into the creepy. But while there isn’t a consistent tone, much like that era of Hollywood, quite possibly the strangest aspect is Tarantino’s usual outspoken style isn’t on full display. In fact, this is the most restrained Tarantino has ever been, going long stretches without any dialogue, and even then the repartee feels genuine and calm, as opposed to the usual loud and colorfully phrased. Instead, Tarantino lets the atmosphere and mood sink in, which gives the performances even more room to breathe and flourish.
Set in 1969 Hollywood, the film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is an aging movie star who starts taking on more television roles in Westerns, especially as the bad guy who always dies in the end, while Booth is Dalton’s stunt double who starts seeing less and less work once he realizes no one in Hollywood wants to work with him. Both actors struggle to find work, as well as their place in the world. Though this might end up being the least of their problems when both gain the attention of Charles Mansen, who seems to be out to get Dalton’s neighbor, Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Both DiCaprio and Pitt shine in this film, both together and on their own. Maybe its because neither actor has been in a movie for a while, but it was a joy to watch both of these seasoned veterans playing aging actors who keep having emotional breakdowns when their age starts to show. DiCaprio goes all in on the over the top, hammy acting of the 1960s, and yet plays Dalton like a scared, stammering mess when he’s not on camera, longing to be back on film where he can truly shine. While Pitt is more laid back, uncaring about what really happens to him and does everything he can to enjoy every moment. But at the core, these two share a wonderful chemistry as years of friendship come flying off the screen just through their simple interactions. Despite the style and atmosphere driving the film, this shows why DiCaprio and Pitt got to be two of the best actors of our generation.
However, I can’t stay much for the other performances, especially since most others seemed rather pointless. Al Pacino has a couple short scenes as he plays a Martin Scorcese-like character, only attempting to give Dalton some acting advice, while Damon Herriman plays Charles Manson in two short scenes. But the strangest waste of a talent is Margot Robbie, who has several scenes in the movie that ultimately add little to the movie. She spends most of her time dancing and going to movie theaters to watch her own movies. While it does add to the scope of Hollywood, her scenes are so distant from the ones with Dalton and Booth that almost feels at odds with them. Beyond a couple of Mansons’ followers, none of the supporting performances stand out.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is Taratino’s most respectful and restrained movie, letting the images speak rather than going all in on the dialogue. There’s so much love for a fantastical and whimsical era of Hollywood that it’s hard not to enjoy even the simple scenes of driving around the streets of L.A. while listening to some early rock. The performances of DiCaprio and Pitt are so charming and captivating that it really doesn’t matter that the other performances don’t hold a candle. And yet, the film feels strange for feeling like a Tarantino film and not like a classic Tarantino – perhaps, like this movie, its auteur has matured.
Final Grade: A-