When a director can communicate their love, passion and command of filmmaking through their work, the result is immediately infused with a soul and personality, thus feeling less like a piece of entertainment or a product sold to the viewer. A prime example of this is Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Set in 1969 Hollywood, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor known for TV Westerns who feels his career is nearing its end. He shares the screen with his stunt double and compatriot Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Pitt expertly juggles bravado and laid-back charisma, complementing DiCaprio’s charming insecurity and self-doubt. Some of the funniest moments stem from their contrasting reactions to various situations.
They are joined by Margot Robbie as real-life actor Sharon Tate, one of the victims tragically murdered by the Manson “family”. The film portrays Tate with the utmost respect, celebrating her as a young, optimistic actor. One sequence featuring her is the most joyous in the entire film, thanks to Robbie’s excellent and endearing performance. However, the entire ensemble cast (which includes Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino) does an impressive job.
Thanks to immaculate production design and Robert Richardson’s rich cinematography, Tarantino’s adoration for 60’s Hollywood is palpable throughout. Shots of night-time Los Angeles, studio lots and films/TV shows starring Dalton within the film make it look and sound like a product of the era it depicts (even more so if viewed on 35mm film).
The narrative is unique and unpredictable, carefully setting up seemingly unconnected scenes leading to a suspenseful, exciting and satisfying finale. During the lead-up, however, the film’s 161-minute runtime takes its toll, with some lulls in pacing and a handful of imperfect scene transitions. The film is also not particularly emotionally resonant, although it isn’t necessarily trying to be. For better or worse (depending on the viewer), it’s more Pulp Fiction than Django Unchained.
Other minor issues are singular traits of certain characters. Early on, a significant rumour is established about Booth that makes him somewhat unlikable, yet it serves very little narrative purpose and is quickly abandoned. Secondly, the film’s portrayal of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) has been established as historically inaccurate (aside from flashbacks of Lee training Sharon Tate). Therefore, assuming the revisionist decision to portray Lee as a purposefully inaccurate caricature was made with comedic and/or artistic intent, an aspect of his personality still feels out of place in the context of the character and of the film. While these issues don’t affect the main narrative, they are worth addressing.
Regardless, the film is expertly directed, with Tarantino’s sensibilities being felt throughout, to the point that commending his dialogue and musical choices feels predictable. Scenes of Dalton filming a television Western, or watching himself on-screen, ooze with the same infectious enthusiasm that Tarantino has for the era’s entertainment style.
Therefore, despite imperfect pacing, a few character issues and little emotional resonance, Hollywood is another win for Tarantino thanks to memorable performances and characters, and an unconventional, yet satisfying narrative.
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