Review: Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ Captures Hollywood In Flux

“It’s official, ol’buddy. I’m a has-been.”

1969. Hollywood. A place where industrial and creative change is all around you. Major studios on the verge of collapse are getting bought up by conglomerates. The tried and true methods of the Golden Era studio machine are on the decline.  A fresh wave of talent is beginning to emerge, kicking off the New Hollywood movement. It’s out with the old and in with the new as Hollywood finds itself in a state of flux, and it is this moment in time where we find ourselves in Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

This weekend film bros and cinephiles alike will be making the trek to the theater to see the latest film from one of cinema’s greatest directors. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglorious Bastards, Reseviour Dogs. All bonafide classics. So in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and Tarantino’s complacency), it became a big deal what he would make next and with who. Making the film more significant is Tarantino’s claim that this is his last feature, potentially marking the last time we’ll see a new Tarantino release in theaters. 

When Tarantino makes a film, it’s always an event. You go to the theater and watch it on the biggest screen you can find. His films are auteur blockbusters, and perhaps more than anything we should relish in the fact that we getting a $100 million original film in 2019. While there is certainly an indulgence with Tarantino’s vignette-style that makes the film feel more moment to moment, OUATIH reflects on a Hollywood that was in a way only Tarantino can, with admiration, style, and gratuitous violence.

Given Tarantino’s status, all the stars come out to play for his latest film. You have Leonardo DiCaprio coming off an extended acting break to play the central lead Rick Dalton, a Hollywood star on the decline and making his final attempts to remain relevant. Along side him you have Brad Pitt taking a break from producing to make a rare acting appearance as Dalton’s stoic stunt double Cliff Booth. Margot Robbie takes on Sharon Tate as the Manson Murders set the backdrop for a changing Hollywood. 

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And beyond those three leads you have a bevy of other stars playing roles ranging from studio big wigs to cracked out flower childs. You have Al Pacino, Dakotah Fanning, Maya Hawke, Kurt Russel, Luke Perry, Bruce Dern, and more making appearances, and what’s truly awesome is how well utilized they all are. Though they may only be used sparingly, ultimately contributing to the vignette structure of the film, they’re all terrific. It’s a who’s who of casts that only the likes of an auteur could bring out, and with it, Tarantino is able to direct some stellar performances across the board.

Generally, I don’t like talking about performances within a review unless they truly warrant it, but sure as shit, everyone is knocking it out of the park in OUATIH. Leo and Pitt in particular are out here showing us why they’re Hollywood legends. DiCaprio has a hyper expressive — though certainly not overdone — role as a Hollywood actor, so we’re getting this multi-faced performance that changes with whatever role Rick Dalton has to take on for his fictional film, allowing for some really fun creative scenes. Pitt is stoic like I said, but his delivery is spot on every time. Special kudos to the final scene of the film where Pitt really shines and shows the best his role has to offer. On the back of these two with the supporting cast adding their own color to the film, it’s an early contender for ensemble of the year.

One thing for sure is that the film subverts expectations. For a film pitched as a has-been movie about an aging movie star it really only touches upon the individual character lightly. It wasn’t until about an hour and half in that I realized I was looking for something that probably didn’t exist, or at least not in the literal and traditional sense. Though Dalton’s character is driven by the desire to be famous again, he services as an anchor for everything around him. This isn’t a high drama film that explores the inner workings of Hollywood through one man’s crisis, no, but rather a series of vignettes that provide a window to a time when Hollywood was in flux. 

These vignettes provide the most contention in the film. The film behaves much in the same way as Pulp Fiction where events seemingly have no narrative function, but in exchange, you get something much more intangible, something more ephemeral that contributes to the overall feel of Tarantino’s rendition of the 1960s. That atmosphere is built around scenes paying homage to Hollywood’s past, namely Westerns, but the thing is those scenes are prolonged and often feel like indulgences on Tarantino’s end.

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The film really plays up its homage to cinema, more so than Tarantino’s prior works which were already leaning into their influences. On one end you have the sentiment of, “This is a movie about Hollywood, of course they’ll play it up,” but on the other end, you get the sense that Tarantino really just wanted to recreate scenes from his favorite 60s films. They are seemingly pulled straight from the period, and not in an artificial way, but in an admittedly sincere way that is a more accurate portrayal than anything. Not only is it Tarantino, but you’re getting some deep-cut referential stuff here that will undoubtably please, but not for the normies unfortunately.

When I was watching the film I was surprised by how much stuff was left into the final edit. We’ve heard about Tim Roth’s part being entirely cut and how Tarantino went in for another edit post-Cannes, but this is a big boy film. Clocking in at 2 hours 45 minutes, this is a film — of this scale on a big studio’s release schedule — that only comes around once or twice a year . There were multiple times where I thought, “Damn this got left in?” when in any other studio film it would of been hacked to death in the edit. And to that I tip my cap. The fact that we get something like this with the tenacity to turn it’s nose at studio tendencies is awesome, and we only get it with someone who has the clout that Tarantino has. Even if those extended scenes are in part my problem with the film, they are also something I admire.

Underlining the film is the sentiment that Hollywood today is changing. Regardless of the time period, the sense that Hollywood is changing isn’t foreign to us. You see it with the monotonous blockbuster product released every couple months. OUATIH feels like Tarantino saying, “Remember how fun movies use to be?” And just like the dying era of old Hollywood found in the film, there can be lines drawn to the death of 90s Hollywood today, the period in which Tarantino came into prominence. One part love letter to the period Tarantino adores, and one part commentary on the malleability and ever-changing status of Hollywood.

And with that we come to the end of the review for possibly the last Tarantino new release. It’s surreal to think that we won’t get another one of his films, but if there were ever a way to go out, a tribute to Hollywood would be the way to do it. With all the influence Tarantino has given to cinema, the film feels like a sunset to his own time in Hollywood, but like Rick Dalton, Tarantino may feel that the landscape has changed, and rather than churning out films until he fades from relevance, he decided he wanted to go out on top... and in style.


Supplementals:

Anyone remember how Warner Bros changed their studio lot to match the 1960s when they were trying to lure Tarantino’s distribution rights? Good times.

The Pure Cinema Podcast has a great two and a half hour discussion with Tarantino himself on the New Beverley Cinema’s July programming, which the director curated himself based on the influences for OUATIH. It’s wildly fascinating to get exposure to new films and if anything, you’ll be stunned by how deep Tarantino’s cinema knowledge is. It’s incredible. Give it a listen, head to Scarecrow after, and pick up some of the standouts.

Shout out to Margaret Quayle for playing a second flower child in her career. In OUATIH she plays a Manson discipline, but eagle eyed viewers might recognize her in a similar role found in Shane Blacks’ 2016 film The Nice Guys.