Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s latest directorial effort is really great for the most part. Tarantino abandons his usual bag of tricks for a serious and thought provoking dive into the past, then in the last 40 minutes he throws it out the window for a different movie entirely.

The story concerns fictional actor Rick Dalton as he circles the drain of his career. He’s played perfectly by Leonardo Dicaprio. Dalton was once going to be a big star. He was the lead in a western TV series, now he makes B-movies and appears sporadically as bad guys on tv westerns. By his side is Cliff Booth a stunt man who has a checkered past. He breezes through life totally at ease with himself and the times they’re living in. Those times are the late 1960’s. Everything is changing, and a new breed of movie star is taking over the world Dalton used to inhabit. This new star is Sharon Tate played by Margot Robbie. To say she plays Tate is inaccurate. She more behaves and exists on screen in a nearly wordless role.

Tarantino’s previous films reply on endless scenes of dialogue. His characters are verbose to the point of self parody. Here he eschews his typical dialogue and allows the camera to tell his story. He employs the camera as his storyteller here and the effect is at times hypnotic. He shows these people instead of having them explain themselves. Some people may dislike this change, to me it was exciting to watch. There’s snappy dialogue for sure, but he is able to utilize the camera here in a way he never has before.

The film follows three different episodes in these people’s lives. Dalton is trying his best to give a good performance in a western TV show. It’s not much of a part, but his struggle to give it his all is brilliantly portrayed. Dalton has a fascinating conversation with a little girl on set about acting and what acting is. She is a delight. He then flubs his lines, but refuses to let the director cut. The camera holds on him as he desperately recomposes himself and gives the lines again. DiCaprio is great in this scene showing a man barely holding himself together. As he falls in and out of character, he shows so much under the surface. He has wrapped his worth up in his career, and failure on set means he has no worth. He’s heartbreaking and riveting to watch.

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth got all the acclaim and awards during the Oscars and it was deserved. He doesn’t get the big show piece scenes that DiCaprio gets, but he handles every moment with a cool calm authority. He feels totally at ease on screen. He is the man of the present. He likes the hippies. He likes the freedom that the 60’s represents. He is the present unconcerned with success and the future.

Finally, there is Margot Robbie who just exists on screen. Much has been made of the size of her part and the fact that she never interacts with the other two leads. This is intentional. She is the future. She is fleeting and beautiful and enticing. She is not a character so much as an ideal that everyone is chasing. Robbie behaves and wanders through the film enjoying life and the promise of things to come.

The movie is fantastic to me for the first two hours. The first two hours ride a metaphorical wave through this world of the past. Then in the last 35 minutes, the movie takes a detour and turns into a standard Tarantio film. It launches into ultra violence and bloodshed. It embarks on a gleefully brutal murder spree that for me undoes the metaphorical context the film has built up so far. It re-contextualizes the entire movie up until that point and just doesn’t work for me. It is wildly entertaining violence if you like violence. It is classic Tarantino if you like Tarantino. But for me it shifts the movie too harshly and it feels manipulative. The movie leads the audience down a certain path and then at the last second says “gotcha!” It feels manipulative and mean spirited.

I love a lot of this movie. I have great respect for what Tarantino did here. It’s not a home run for me, but I can recommend it. It’s mostly my cup of tea. – B+

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