Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a sprawling ode to a version of Southern California that no longer exists. Comprised of humor, heart, and half-true history, Hollywood is another wildly entertaining addition to the Tarantino lexicon.
With a meandering opening and extended second act, the film is in no rush to get to where it is going. It milks its two hour and thirty nine-minute run time in a way that will make fans of the film fawn and critics of Tarantino grind his or her teeth. It expertly lulls us in to a sense of calm so that when Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth goes to the famous Spahn Ranch in the second act, the shift from Hollywood hangout flick to darkly, hilarious action thriller feels natural and never abrupt because of the care placed into the set up.
As with all Tarantino cinema, the performances in this film are something to behold. Leonardo DiCaprio is unsurprisingly great as Hollywood has-been Rick Dalton. He is incredibly funny and embraces the physicality of the comedy. His character wears his heart on his sleeve, yet Leo never feels over the top portraying him. Margot Robbie delivers a stunningly accurate Sharon Tate and makes the most of her surprisingly limited screen time. Mike Moh is easily the most convincing actor playing a real-life person in his incredible turn as Bruce Lee. Margaret Qualley has an immense amount of fun with her role, and it shows. She is a highlight of the second act and drives home the chaotic hippy Manson girl motif perfectly. While the entire cast is more than game and each giving life to the unique voice Tarantino has crafted for them, Brad Pitt is the one who steals the show. As Rick’s loyal stuntman, Cliff Booth, Pitt has never been better. He is outrageously hilarious and effortlessly cool. Every moment he is on screen is consistently entertaining as he creates a truly classic Tarantino character. His timing is perfect, and like his costar, he embraces the physicality of the role in the best kind of way. Cliff Booth may very well be the part Pitt was born to play as his charisma, humor, and charm are on full display. Whether he is sharing the screen with DiCaprio, Qualley, his dog, or a giant bloody mary, he is knocking it out of the park and, if there is any justice in the world, winning himself his first Academy Award.
In a who’s who of talented creatives, it is still the man helming it all who deserves the deepest discussion. Quentin Tarantino’s work can be described in a plethora of ways. It is divisive, controversial, outlandish, and hysterical. His supporters would call him visionary while his detractors would call him indulgent (Both would have plenty of evidence to point to in this film alone), but one thing no one could ever accuse him of is being boring. He always goes all out and Hollywood is no exception. His writing is witty and layered. He creates a world predicated upon the familiar and the abstract as he melds together reality and fiction in a way that has become his trademark. For someone who is known for such an in your face style, Tarantino shows a great deal of restraint and subtly in this screenplay. He drops in hints and clues that we dismiss as just good fun, but they come back later for big narrative payoffs. His humor is the best it has ever been, and he creates a unique voice for each of his many characters. His direction is paced and interesting as he sets up recurring shots and edits to add to the humor and narrative of the piece. Among the more successful of these are the repeated walking and driving shots and the uses of jump cuts during Dalton’s meltdowns on set. The soundtrack is phenomenal and perfectly paces the action as it lends itself towards the wide array of tones present in the almost three hours of screen time.
This film is classic Tarantino in that it is apt to be the source of much argument in the coming months and years. Some will lambaste it as a problematic and messy ego trip, while others will praise the distinguished performances and subtly brilliant film making. If Tarantino has gone through stages as a filmmaker, this would be the finale of his revenge fantasy and revisionist history phase. He caps off his desire to retell our past by wondering what would happen if the characters he grew up idolizing were able to save the version of Hollywood he so loved. For an artist whose work is often criticized for being shallow, this film is immensely personal, and whether you hate or love the man who made it, I think we all can agree it tells us a lot about him. More than he has ever told us before. If there were a four-hour cut, I would be the first in line.