Tarantino's love letter to an industry he grew up watching.
Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV actor and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) tries to be relevant in a changing Hollywood landscape during 1969. During that period, Sharon Tate's (Margot Robbie) star is rising and her seemingly inexorable meeting with Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) looms…
Here be spoilers…
What we like
This is Quentin Tarantino's Hollywood that he grew up watching. The black-and-white Westerns of laconic tough men facing off with flashy villains. This is a sliver that would be the foundation of Tarantino's future oeuvre. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (the title is a play on Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America) is an ode to the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
DiCaprio and Pitt's chemistry is infectious. It's the stuff that relationships are made of. DiCaprio's character, Rick Dalton is an actor, who found fame in a TV series called Bounty Law but finds it hard to transition to films. Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Dalton's stunt double, best friend ("More than a buddy, less than a wife") and possible murderer of his wife. Dalton needs validation but also is self-aware of his own fading star and Booth is his rock, always ready with his encouragement and is at peace with his lot.
We're used to seeing portrayal of has-been actors as divas but Dalton is played as someone, who, despite the bit parts he's getting, is deadly serious about his profession. He beats himself up when he's unable to remember his lines; he chides himself for drinking on the job. And when he does get his shit together, his acting awes everybody on set.
Booth is entertaining too, thanks to his laissez-faire attitude with that ominous hint of 'don't-fuck-with-me'. This puts him as a mainstay character, one that's destined to last until the closing credits, until when he starts poking his nose into red-flag situations then we're reminded that this is a Tarantino film that we're watching.
Tarantino sure loves his music and he often presents his soundtrack as diegetic sounds. I think I heard this method utilised in Reservoir Dogs, when K-Billy (voiced by deadpan extraordinaire, Steven Wright) introduces the radio-friendly hits against the backdrop of violence and profanity. Then there's the opening title in Pulp Fiction where Dick Dale's "Misirlou" switches to Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" and we see Jules and Vincent listening to the radio in their car. I'm reminded about this when watching Once, when the opening music from a show playing on TV establishes the danger that Booth entering when he was at Spahn Ranch.
Not only was the time and place that Once is set in believable but the actors picked to portray (or inspired by) real-life people is a feat unto itself. Either rocking the look or the essence, you've well-casted roles like Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen; Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate; Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Casting Damon Herriman as Charles Manson is *kisses fingers*. With minimal dialogue, he really embodies the menace of the cult leader. How well, you asked? Well, Herriman plays an older Manson in the second season of Mindhunters.
What we didn't like
While I was attentive throughout the movie, thinking back, it does feel a little long-winded? Tarantino considers this film as a 'memory piece' (akin to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma) and sometimes the film can drag on a little too long or make unnecessary detours.
And there's the issue with how Bruce Lee was portrayed. Look. I'm all for tearing down idols; all of your favourite people are flawed and we shouldn't put them on a pedestal. And for some reason, the handling of Lee in Once feels… off. It's a fictionalised approach to Lee as a blowhard, whose talk is bigger than his bite and he needed to be that person so that Booth can take him down a few pegs to set Booth up for the confrontation at the end of the movie.
There are two camps with regards to this. One with Shannon Lee (daughter of Bruce Lee) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slamming Tarantino's take of Lee as "racist" and "disrespectful" and the other camp with critic Walter Chaw who sees this depiction as "[taking] the air out of the constructed mystique that Lee was forced to maintain".
(There are other supporters who said that Lee's ass being kicked is Booth's account so it could have been exaggerated and needed to be taken with a grain of salt. I don't buy this account because that negates the veracity of every other flashback that happened in the film.)
Tarantino is cocksure about his shit. He knows what he wants and he'll stick by his decision. It's a lauded trait but maybe a little more care could be taken with the real-life figure who had to be the bulwark against the unrelenting racism in that era.
What to look out for
Along with figuring out, who's playing whom in the film, there's also Tarantino's foot fetish. His is an open secret that's further corroborated in the infamous Beejoli Shah's e-mail (we're not linking this). With this information in mind, good luck unseeing the shots of feet in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is out in theatres.