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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Damon Herriman, Austin Butler, Emile Hirsch, Scoot McNairy, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Spencer Garrett, Mike Moh, Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Zoë Bell, James Marsden, Michael Madsen, James Remar and Brenda Vaccaro.

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino.

Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures. 159 minutes. Rated R.

Hollywood in the late 60s. Old-school show biz meets the hippies. The fall of the Hays Commission. The TV western is breathing its last gasps. Color TV is just starting to catch on. Cigarette commercials are still a staple. The sports cars are cool, the heroes are handsome, the women are beautiful, the work is hard, the drinks are stiff, and stardom is always just out of reach.

It’s all right in Quentin Tarantino’s wheelhouse. His obsession and love of this period is legendary. As a cineaste, he knows most of the stories, what is true and what is false, the look, the feel, the sense and smell of the place.

And Tarantino nails it. Until he doesn’t.

If Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood were two movies – and at nearly three hours long, it potentially could have been – one of those movies would have been close to a masterpiece. The other one would be a serious disappointment. Which is to say, Once Upon a Time starts out terrific and exciting; oh, but that ending really kind of stinks.

The film is a mashup of fictional characters and real-life celebrities of the time. We run randomly into actors playing a whole series of 60s celebs – Steve McQueen, Connie Stevens, Michelle Phillips, Mama Cass Elliot, Bruce Lee (Lee’s estate should really complain about this because he was played as a particularly smug, ineffectual jerk), Joanna Pettet, Sam Wanamaker, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. And, naturally, if Tate is there, we’re likely also going to run across the Manson family.

We visit lots of the legendary spots of old Hollywood – Laurel Canyon, the Playboy Mansion, Sunset Boulevard, Musso & Franks, back lots, El Coyote, the Westwood Village Theater, Casa Vega, The Spahn Ranch, The Cinerama Dome. All are recreated with fetishistic detail, as are the cars, the signs, trailers and extended scenes from TV shows and movies, the music. Although the music, while great, is one of the first signs that something may be a little off. People are shown driving around listening to some fantastic songs on their car radios. Those songs tend to be a bit more obscure stuff that music nerds know and love, but not necessarily the stuff that would really be playing on the radio on an average day in 1969.

The main characters in Once Upon a Time are Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt). Rick is loosely based on several action stars of the 60s, though it seems he is mostly based on a pre-superstardom Burt Reynolds – think the dry patch in Burt’s career between Gunsmoke and Deliverance in which he was mostly stuck in b-movies, TV guest spots and Playgirl magazine. Cliff seems to be mostly based on Hal Needham, Burt’s best friend and stuntman, who eventually became Burt’s go-to director, working with him in Smokey & the Bandit I and II, Hooper, The Cannonball Run movies and Stroker Ace.

Running parallel to Rick and Cliff’s Hollywood adventures in drinking, fighting, and looking for jobs, Tarantino periodically veers off to watch over Rick’s next-door neighbor Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie), actress/model and wife of hot director Roman Polanski. (Polanski himself is just shown periodically in passing.) Tate doesn’t do much here: shop, dance, visit with friends and family, go to a movie, has men fall in love with her by just being herself. Our knowledge of her ultimate fate makes her a bittersweet character.

She seems to be Tarantino’s vision of goodness and light in this world, though honestly, we don’t see deeply enough into her life to get much of a handle on her. This is not a judgment on Robbie, who does a fine job, it’s just that Tarantino doesn’t give her the layers of depth that he gives his male characters. Even in a scene when she happens to be in Westwood Village and walks past a movie theater which is playing Dean Martin’s The Wrecking Crew, in which she has a supporting role. She talks her way into a free showing of the movie by proving to them that she is in the film, but you must wonder if it was worth all that effort to get a little recognition and to save $0.75.

Eventually about an hour and a half in, the viewer (or at least this viewer) starts wondering where Tarantino is going with all this. It turns out that where he is going is another one of his revisionist history endings – sort of like when the entirety of the Nazi party hierarchy was taken out at a French movie theater in Inglourious Basterds.

However, that climax, though blatantly ahistorical, was at least kind of a nice fantasy.

This finale just didn’t work at all, even though it gives a happy ending to a sad story. The ending isn’t just annoying because it is obviously completely factually untrue – though that is rather frustrating. It’s also irritating because Tarantino slips into his stupid-violent mode; a sensationally and senselessly bloody showdown that includes guns, knives, hand-to-hand fighting, an attack dog, even a flamethrower. It’s the kind of dumbly unrealistic fight scene where someone falls into a swimming pool with a gun and comes up shooting, even though the pistol should have been waterlogged and the gunpowder soaked.

In fact, the last hour of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is so off course – except for a brief section where Dalton resurrects his career in spaghetti westerns which returns to the fun film reverence of the early parts – that the climax pretty much saps any of the goodwill built up in the terrific first hour and a half.

If Tarantino shaved the last hour or so off his movie it would have been something special, though.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: December 9, 2019.

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