ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Celebrates Bromance and a Bygone Era

Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film proves a tribute to film, friendship, and Sharon Tate

For the most part you know what to expect going into a Quentin Tarantino film. A pastiche of older films, a distinct visual flair, memorable characters spouting enthralling dialog and sparking witty exchanges, a healthy punctuation of violence, and a stonking score. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood delivers on all counts, but it arrives with an air of uncertainty with its setting, looking to not only explore the cinematic and social scene in 1960s LA, but dark events involving the murder of Sharon Tate and four other people.

The film opens with something of a flashback, introducing us to our two leads during their own ‘golden era’, partnered on a NBC Western series called Bounty Law. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the star, while Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his “load carrying” stunt double. Lurching forward in time, we see that Dalton’s aspirations to light up the big screen have faltered; instead he’s reduced to playing the “heavy,” a villainous guest spot on whatever new pilot or show is filming that week. Cliff, however, seems content assuming a role as Rick’s driver, point man, and best friend. A new agent, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), points out to Rick that while he’s getting work, it’s not exactly helping build his image and career, urging him to explore opportunities in Italian cinema. As Rick’s star fades, one rises in the form of Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie), who just happens to live next door with her husband and director Roman Polanski. As their careers shift through 1969, the film moves towards that fateful evening on Cielo Drive.

Tarantino’s love of cinema is well known, and setting a feature in such a rich period in Hollywood history allows him to indulge many of his trademarks and nods toward his genres of choice: the Western, Italian cinema, Kung Fu, and more. It’s a love letter to film and the industry not too unlike that depicted in Hail Caesar! More than an indulgence, it’s a setting that allows Tarantino to immerse us in the relationship between Rick and Cliff. Theirs is a genuine partnership built on respect and love for each other. Each is in a business where fame, image, and connections matter. Where time is the enemy of all and seems to be catching up to them both. It’s not just the film industry that is going through a change, but the social order too. All the while a growing sense of unease creeps into view as the Manson cult skirts the periphery of their lives. The cultural shift of the time is well embodied by the Sharon Tate murder, a loss of innocence and of potential. While many might have feared the film to be somewhat exploitative of these events, the truth is far from it. Instead Tarantino treads a path that not only expresses affection for Tate and what she represents, it also very clearly condemns the Manson family and their evil acts. The finale will provoke plenty of discussion and sets itself apart in tone from the rest of the film, but it’s hard to think of a more fitting way for the filmmaker to revisit history.

Pitt is effortlessly cool, playful, exuding charisma but with a streak of danger to him, something greatly aided by a running joke about an incident involving his ex-wife. DiCaprio turns in his best work in years, and he didn’t even need to endure raw liver and freezing temperatures to do it. There’s a remarkable balancing act and awareness to his performance as Dalton, jaded and sad, but still striving to nurture that inner confidence and talent, desperate to maintain his career, image, and legacy. He shares several scenes on set with a young child actor (Julia Butters) that offer much insight into his slide, his realization, and his emotional state, while offering up some of the more comedic moments in the film. The genuine rapport and affection between them, as well as their old school Hollywood stardom, bring so much charm and warmth to the picture, investing you in their shifting lives and relationship. Robbie gets far less to do than you’d expect, but she carves out some special moments in the film, most notably a joyous scene where she slips into a screening of one of Tate’s own films, The Wrecking Crew. Her presence is more symbolic than anything else, a delicately weighted but important contribution to the whole. As you’d expect from a Tarantino flick, it’s replete with great actors and performances, notably Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Margaret Qualley (Tarantino’s new feet fixation?), and a very good girl indeed in Brandy the dog.

There aren’t enough words to praise the effort that went into the actual production work here, bringing 1969 LA back to life in spectacular fashion. Tarantino, along with by hazy dreamy aesthetic from cinematographer Robert Richardson and fueled by a vibrant period inspired soundtrack, showcase a bygone era, while leveraging the changes of the time into something far more human and affecting. While not as snappy as some of his work, Hollywood feels like a more mature and confident piece from the director, hearkening back to the longer dialogue and character driven scenes of Jackie Brown while pulling from the revisionist history angle of Inglorious Basterds. It’s a film to bask in, one brimming with humanity, hilarity, and everything else you’d expect from Tarantino.

Times change, as do people, but what persists is our desire to achieve, be loved, and leave a mark. It’s true whether it’s film or friendships, and in Cliff and Rick we have both covered. They bring heart to an affectionate exploration of bromance in a bygone age. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino at his most assured, using DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie to pay tribute to a lost era and a tragically lost talent.

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is released July 26th, 2019.

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