ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD review by Mark Walters – Tarantino puts Pitt & DiCaprio in 1969

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD review by Mark Walters – Tarantino puts Pitt & DiCaprio in 1969

As Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD starts to roll for the audience, we’re introduced to actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a 1950s Western television star who isn’t just losing popularity, he’s desperately taking bit parts on popular TV shows just to pay the bills. His former stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is now reduced to being a glorified chauffeur and gopher for Rick, doing odd jobs to fill his day rather than what he’s best at. We later learn Cliff’s lack of work is related to a rather macabre “accident” with his ex, leading to production companies in Hollywood blacklisting him. Rick meets producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), who suggests he go to Rome to shoot some Spaghetti Westerns in an effort to revitalize his career, but Dalton isn’t crazy about the idea. All of this feels strangely similar to the real life of Clint Eastwood early in his acting career, though the story evolves into other parallels with popular actors of the era. And speaking of the era, this film is set in 1969, right around the time when Charles Manson’s cult was about to target budding actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie). Tate is dating director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and living in his home that used to belong to one of Manson’s friends. As we watch events unfold, we see characters played by iconic actors like Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Nicholas Hammond, Emile Hirsch, Luke Perry, Scoot McNairy, Lena Dunham, Austin Butler, Lorenza Izzo, and others… there is rarely a face featured here that isn’t someone famous, even the extras in the background are recognizable… I especially loved seeing 90-year-old legend Clu Gulager in a cameo with a scene featuring Margot Robbie, as Clu’s Western series THE TALL MAN was undoubtedly an influence on the BOUNTY LAW fictional series Rick Dalton starred in, but at some point it’s impossible to keep track of how many famous faces are on display. Damian Lewis briefly plays Steve McQueen… and is kinda perfect at it, and Mike Moh briefly plays Bruce Lee with incredible perfection. Damon Herriman is Charles Manson, though despite the story elements and the year this is set in, don’t expect to see too much of him.

The main story of the production shifts back and forth between Rick Dalton trying to keep his career alive, and Cliff Booth eventually getting mixed up with one of Manson’s followers. As a narrative feature, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD really doesn’t follow a solid or cohesive path, but chances are the audience will be too busy being entertained watching these cinematic icons spout clever dialogue and sport period clothing in a way that makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time 50 years. As a movie fan, and a fan of the older days of Hollywood, I greatly appreciated the work that went into this film, and the look and feel of the overall production. I can safely say I didn’t find the screenplay to be one of Tarantino’s best, but I still highly enjoyed the ride. My concern is whether or not someone who doesn’t share my interests or fascination with the classic days of Tinseltown will appreciate or enjoy what’s on display here, or if they’ll just wonder in the end what the point of it all was. And make no mistake, there IS a point, as some of the dialogue in the final scenes makes evidently clear. In many ways ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is one of the most “meta” and self-aware movies ever made about Hollywood and those who love it – it’s basically Tarantino giving commentary that could give television viewers and movie watchers pause in just about any era, and question what really qualifies as “entertainment” in the first place.

The performances here are all pretty solid, with DiCaprio really diving into the idea of an insecure former star who is increasingly aware of how irrelevant he’s becoming. He’s turned into his own worst critic, showing no confidence or ambition, but struggling with even attempting solutions that could potentially make it all better. It’s also a smart commentary on how Hollywood actors can be on top of the world today and forgotten tomorrow, perhaps a bit of a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to be famous. Brad Pitt is more of a fun and grounded character, sort of a sympathetic loser who has it all, but ruined his reputation with everyone after a tragic mistake… or was it a mistake? He carries the confidence that Rick lacks, but gets no respect from those around him. When he’s tempted by one of Manson’s pretty followers, it’s easy to see how he could fall for her without much regard for his own safety. In Rick, we see a man who had it all and lost it, and in Cliff we see a man who has it all but is ignored by everyone, two tragic sides of a very realistic coin that both could potentially turn things around. The third key player here is Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, who sadly doesn’t get as much to do and is nowhere near as interesting or a character in this narrative. Robbie spends most of her screen time either dancing at parties, watching herself at the local cinema, or smiling and laughing as a plaything for Roman Pollanski. We never get a sense of who Sharon Tate was supposed to be as a person, or her importance to the story, other than knowing what inevitable event awaits her during this timeframe. There’s a scene where Damian Lewis (playing Steve McQueen) explains to an onlooker how Sharon Tate is in the middle of a love triangle between her ex (played by Emile Hirsch) and Polanski, as the ex is just waiting around for Polanski to do something stupid. Once that explanation is presented, that seems to be all Tarantino wants to tell us about Tate, as she doesn’t serve much purpose for the rest of the film, other than perhaps being a misdirect for the viewer toward thinking the entire point of the film is waiting for the grisly murder… it’s not, but in a way it kind of is.

There are some things Quentin Tarantino gets really dead on, like the cheesy TV Western style whenever we see clips of the fictional Rick Dalton shows, or the Hollywood decor and signage as we watch period cars zipping around L.A. areas. There are some sequences where we see countless 1960s vehicles on major L.A. freeways, making me wonder how in the world they cleared out traffic long enough to get the shots they needed. And the soundtrack may be one of the very best of Tarantino’s library, featuring back-to-back late-60s toe-tapping tunes, and a few songs you may not be familiar with but will be searching for afterward. At two hours and 41 minutes, yes, it is bloated and overstays its welcome a bit in the final hour, but for the most part the proceedings are so fun and entertaining, it’s easy to forgive the lengthy journey. Again, I don’t think this is by any means Quentin’s best movie, but if you’re into Hollywood history and particularly the late-60s era of entertainment, you’re going to be grinning from ear to ear as you watch this clever bit of social commentary.

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD opens July 26, 2019

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.