Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) is charming and entertaining as it sends a love letter to late 60s Hollywood and then reinvents a small slice of history. I enjoyed it, though the last act, where everything has been headed and comes together on one fateful night, appears grafted on, resulting in a film that feels both sprawling and disjointed.
As a movie buff, I have a love/irritation thing with Tarantino. I love his pulpy action, fearless penchant for bringing a large cast together into a third-act bloodbath, and charming, flawed, and for the most part likeable characters. Every film I’ve seen has at least once scene that for me was surprising and cathartic. On the flip side, I find the dripping cool he forces on his characters annoying and his long stretches of dialogue self-indulgent. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD tones all this down while playing to Tarantino’s quirky strengths, resulting in his best film in years.
The story focuses on several people whose lives appear headed to a fateful collision on the night of the Manson Family murders in 1969. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a 50s TV star whose career is in a trough, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his easy-going pal who helps keep his life in order. We also follow Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an actress married to director Roman Polanski, who doesn’t do much other than be cute, smile a lot, and enjoy her carefree life. There isn’t much of a plot, but basically, Rick finds the strength to be the best actor he can be and reclaim his flailing career, and in the end, men who pretended to be heroes for a living get a chance to become the real kind. DiCaprio is fantastic in the role, though Pitt steals the show with an understated performance for the easy-going but tough Cliff, whose stuntman bonafides are taken to an extreme where he can do almost anything physical.
The setting is at the fore in this film, a nostalgic postcard of late-60s Hollywood heavily laced with billboards, radio ads, TV shows, and of course, this being a Tarantino film, music. True to the title, Tarantino doesn’t examine anything about the 60s other than to render it in colorful nostalgia as a fairy tale world, and show that everybody is happy and go-lucky except the hippies are dirtying the place up. As for the story, it’s engaging except again the last act, with its abrupt zoom to the future, heavy narration, and on-the-clock plot, heavy-handedly and seemingly randomly brings everything together around the Manson Family attack for an ending that is supposed to be gonzo but for me fell kind of flat, as again it seemed grafted on as a Tarantino device.
For me, the overall result was visually stimulating, charming, and, well, fine, as it had its pleasures but was too disjointed and pandering for me to call it great.