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« Once Upon a Time & The Farewell are wins for adult programming, thank god. | Main | Oscar Hopefuls from The Netherlands »
Sunday
Jul282019

Review: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad...

We want you... to see this movie so we can talk about it.

[Spoiler-free review] Here’s the best way to know that you’re inside an auteur’s movie. It’s impossible to imagine it having been made by anyone else. Quentin Tarantino’s 10th feature film (creatively referred to as his 9th, presumably to give him a retirement out after his various “I’ll quit after 10 films!” proclamations) is a fable about Hollywood. The movie begins in 1968 and ends in the summer of 1969 when the very pregnant actress Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s new wife, and her house guests were all brutally murdered by the Manson family. Any number of filmmakers could have made a movie about that infamous year in California, but only Tarantino could have made Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Historical events, real ones at least, have never been as sacred to Tarantino as the history of the movies. Whenever he’s dipped into “history” -- Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds-- it’s been as emotionally loaded prefab worlds from which to spin his own idiosyncratic yarns.  In this regard Once Upon a Time is no exception. To this viewer, though, his latest movie feels closer in spirit to Pulp Fiction...

"Rick fucking Dalton" -- Rick Dalton

It’s even tempting, though inaccurate and glib, to describe Once Upon a Time … in Hollywoodas a movie length riff on that restaurant scene in Pulp Fictionfrom the POV of the waiters “Marilyn” and “Elvis”, what with all the famous actors masquerading as other famous actors.

Though we spend intermittent time with the then-rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, luminous if not much more given the confines of the role) she’s more decor than subject. The story is about Tate’s fictional next door neighbor, TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his best star turn since at least The Departed) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, still a f***ing movie star!). Dalton and Booth are minor Hollywood players now, their glory years behind them. Dalton has been reduced to guest star appearances as the “heavy” on various TV shows and Booth rarely works as a stuntman, earning his meager living as a kind of hired-friend. Booth’s primary work is as Dalton’s driver. 

Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley, and Brad Pitt at the Manson Family ranch... this sequence is practically its own mini movie.

We spend a lot of time with the two men in the car, driving to and from the star’s home. Among the many glorious and funny visual touches (Barbara Ling is the production designer) is a cutout detail from a billboard or movie poster, bearing what I thinkis bad painting of Rick Dalton’s face, that’s used to mark Dalton’s reserved parking spot... at his own home. Booth’s junkier car gets the non-marked spot right next to it.

The first time I went to Los Angeles alone in the early Aughts, I didn’t rent a car. The mistake -- which I chalked up to living in New York City where everyonewalks -- was readily apparent. There were few pedestrian friendly sidewalks. People were staring. Every subsequent trip has involved lots of time in cars, rentals or ubers. Sometimes the distance between where you’re coming from and where you’re going is quite short, but try telling that to the traffic. Time stretches on indefinitely. My mind kept drifting to all that vehicular stasis during the movie’s longueurs. ‘Where is this picture going and why is it taking so long to get… Ooh, this scene is fun!’ 

Once Upon a Time’s connective tissue between its episodes is spent on the streets and highways of Los Angeles, with Booth chauffeuring us, or Dalton, or, in one particularly memorable foot-fetishist-friendly scene, Manson-acolyte “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley), through the mythic town. Once Upon a Time... has been described as a “hangout” movie which is the nicest possible way to refer to its indulgent nearly 3 hour running time… and perhaps the most accurate, too.  

Mike Moh is hilarious in what we hope is a star-making appearance as Bruce Lee

Still, unlike the frankly tiresome running times of Tarantino’s recent films (I absolutely cannot with The Hateful Eight), Once Upon a Time is a surprisingly pleasant way to while away three hours, barring two politically questionable sequences. One thankfully brief scene that we wish had been cut makes a kind of joke out of violence against women (a strange misstep given the sympathetic treatment of the Tate subplot). The other pits Bruce Lee (a hugely entertaining cameo from Mike Moh) against Booth in a dick measuring fight that’s half performative for the crew on the set of one of Dalton’s shows. This fight scene narratively serves to demonstrate to the audience how formidable Booth is since we only know of him up this point as a washed-up stuntman. There was surely a way to set that up without the ludicrous suggestion that he’d be Bruce Lee’s equal (my plus one at the screening, a longtime cinephile friend, singled out the scene as his least favourite, “As a minority, I get so sick of ‘Mighty Whitie!’”). 

Those two scenes aside, the movie is funny, visually memorable, and even kind of sweet, which is not typically an adjective anyone would dole out to a Tarantino picture. 

Margot Robbie strolling through LA as Sharon Tate

Dalton is briefly lured away to Italy snag the leading roles he can’t get in Hollywood (Al Pacino has a lot of fun in his cameo doing the luring). Yet the bulk of the picture concerns the industry town itself and its tangled mix of haves (Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski), hangers on (Emile Hirsch as Tate's close friend/former lover Jay Sebring), used-to-haves (Dalton) and have-nots (Booth). All that plus the  fringe dwellers (the Manson family) who are geographically close but live in an entirely different world.

Though several scenes and glorious recreations of historic movie marquees remind us of Tarantino’s love of cinema history, the movie’s stealth subject appears to be the loneliness of stardom, and its stealth tribute is to 1960s television. When Sharon Tate wanders the town stopping to check out one of her own movies, she feels enormous pride when the audience reacts well to her performance. Yet in every sequence in which she looks radiantly happy she is notably alone. Later, it’s weirdly moving (and funny!) when Dalton is all-too excited to watch an episode ofFBI he guests on with Booth, who appears to be his only friend. In the best and lengthiest Dalton-specific episode we spend a day with him on set where he strugglnes with his dialogue and ridicules himself alone in his trailer before meeting a child star (Julia Butters, a major scene-stealer) who inspires him to up his game.

The scene that, to this non-Angelenos, works to signify this film experience best as a whole, complete with all of its meanderings, comes early. At first it plays like ‘why didn’t you cut this?’ nothingness. The scene is a solo affair with no obvious narrative purpose. We’re in the car with Booth as he drives from Dalton’s expensive home, tearing through the streets of LA like he’s filming a stunt-driving scene. This indulgence, which must only be for atmosphere, morphs into something moving and fun and hazy-dreamy (cinematography by three time Oscar winner Robert Richardson) as the road stretches on and historic sites whiz by. Eventually we end up at the legendary Van Nuys Drive In. Our destination is, surprise, not the historic movie site, but a vacant lot behind it.

There Booth lives in a tiny trailer that he shares with his female pitbull Brandy (arguably the film’s most entertaining character). She waits obediently on the couch for her meal. One can of dog food slides grotesquely and sloooowwwly from its can -- falling into its bowl with a memorable gelatinous plop. Then a second, of a different flavor but no less revolting color-- lands on the top, splattering bits to the floor. She licks her lips in anticipation, comically. Time keeps stretching out. Booth/Tarantino isn’t done preparing this meal just yet. In a surprise twist Booth pulls some dry food from the cupboard, sprinkling it randomly and chaotically on top. It’s all too much. It shouldn’t be delicious. Maybe it’s not but we’re hungry. Brandy is finally given the sound cue, and leaps from the couch. 

What a mess but, also, what a feast!

Grade B/B+
MVP: Brandy, who won the Palme Dog at Cannes this year. But it's hard to single out one person or craftsman as there are a lot of rich contributions. But Arianne Phillips (Costume Design), Barbara Ling (Production Design), Brad, Leo, and Margaret Qualley are all top notch. 
Oscar Chances: Across the board (though we'd argue less so for the acting than is usual for a Tarantino picture) IF the movie is a good-sized hit and they can figure out a way to revive interest late in the year.

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Reader Comments (31)

It was fun, but not "great" in the sense that I think Tarantino was going for. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are terrific, and I'll second your highlighting of the costumes and production design. The bit players were all great as well.

As a quick aside, Tarantino's foot fetish is getting out of control. At this point I'm expecting his 10th film to be Feet: The Movie.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

"What a mess but, also, what a feast!"

Couldn't have summed it up better.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

A real mixed bag. My MVP is Julia Butters as that precocious little imp. Dakota Fanning and Bruce Dern also made the most of their cameos. But the foot fetishism is distracting to the point of obnoxiousness. My biggest grpe though is the hamminess of the art direction and soundtrack. Every song, every radio ad, every poster, every marquee, every go go boot screams out for attention. Quentin Tarantino has become the film world's leading nostalgia pimp. And yet, much of the film is undeniably effective, with elements that are better than anything else I'll see this year.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s

I typically do not like DiCaprio much but agree he was really good here, as was Pitt. Their performances were the best parts of the film.

Tarantino needs a strong editor or producer who can reign him in from his indulgences. I thought this was 30-45 minutes too long and contained too many unnecessary sequences (at least 50% of Robbie's material could have been cut, as could most of the shooting of the tv show).

The chatter is that the passage that makes a joke out of violence against women was inspired by Natalie Wood's death. I don't know if that's what Tarantino intended or not, but if so, it's disgusting.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I agree with all that has already been said.

Just read that Streep is getting another Life Achievement award at the Toronto Film Festival.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Nat: I'm absolutely certain that if Tarantino wanted to, he could have cut Brad Pitt's character, got the licensing rights for The Rifleman's intro and just made DiCaprio Chuck Connors. Still a lightly fictionalized Chuck Connors, sure, but Chuck Connors.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia - i dont know who that is.Oh, the star of The Rifleman ... but i dont know that show either. before my time.

Suzanne -- i saw someone tweet that but as a huge Natalie Wood buff there was literally nothing about that sequence that made me think of her, so if that was Tarantino's intent, he failed. I hope it's not true... and i hope people who are saying it dont know her career and are just making a connection of "famous person who died mysteriously on a boat" and thus made the connection. That scene is the worst in the movie (ugh) but thankfully it didn't make me think of her so didn't take me out of the movie.

July 28, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I fucking love this film. Yes, Julia Butters is a true discovery and she kind of steals the film from Leo. Man, I wanna see it again.

Plus, that dog ruled and... I really want a flamethrower for Xmas.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

There's so much to enjoy here, but the ending really soured the rest of it for me. Count me among the critics who think the ultimate impact of this is hollow, regressive, and politically queasy. (Without getting too specific - his choice of stand-in for the entire younger generation is highly dubious, and so is reducing these eras to their pop culture with no mention of their politics. For starters.)

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I thought it dragged in the middle, but I was taken with the beginning and ending. I also loved getting to follow three people through their Hollywood lives. They all fit personas that still exist today - the starlet on the rise, the has-been and the hired friend who gets to see it all. I was initially skeptical about the Sharon Tate bits, but I felt her relative muteness wasn't what it was made out to be. It was a nice tribute to what might have been. I couldn't help feeling sad at the last scene.

I did find myself coming home to google all the references...I was like, what was this 3 in the Attic!? It's just amazing the films that were made then and how long they lasted in theaters.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I'm Asian and my least favorite scene was the one where Bruce Lee and Cliff square off. There's some real loaded, racially-tinged condescension in a very confident white male referring to an Asian male as a "little man," and it was surprising to me that the scene as a whole caricatured Lee quite comically.

In any case, it wasn't enough to wreck how I felt about the film as a whole (I still loved Pitt's performance), but I'm disappointed in how that scene was scripted.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAllen

I too couldn’t and didn’t buy Cliff beating Bruce in a fight but Mike Moh was hugely entertaining as you said. And I know there’s been criticism for that scene and how Bruce came off but I don’t think it’s a stretch to portray him as cocky. Later on we see a scene of him training Sharon for The Wrecking Crew and he’s portrayed as kind and helpful there so idk.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHeh

Count me in as a fan of the ending. Leo and Brad were both great and hilarious. The final scene is a touching tribute to Sharon, Jay, and the other victims. Margot did a good job of honoring Sharon despite not being a whole lot on page. I liked how Tarantino reduced Manson to insignificance in this and portrayed the killers as just a bunch of lunatic morons.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHeh

I liked the reviewers who compared it to “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

The bountiful cameos are endless fun. The small parts are so good. Livewire Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell as a stunt managing team, smart and articulate Julia Butters, scary Dakota Fanning, patiently competent and courteous Timothy Olyphant.

When Brad Pitt has a solo lead scene, you think oh yeah, “Inglourious Basterds”, he was great in that. And what he’s doing here is really interesting. Great performance again.

When Leonardo DiCaprio has his solo lead scenes, you think oh yeah, “Django Unchained”. He was the worst part of that movie too. His “look at me, I’m acting” set pieces are particularly exasperating.

Like so many others have said, Margot Robbie is the heart of the movie. I didn’t even realize she didn’t have many lines or much screen time. She projects such an open positive spirit that I was always glad to return to her and spend more time with her.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenteradri

LOL @ Brad being great in Inglorious Basterds and Leo being the worst part of Django Unchained. Just too funny to take seriously.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHeh

In defense of the two problematic sequences in the beginning. The Bruce Lee fight is to setup the plausibility of the third act. The possibly murdered his wife stuff is done to give us enough info to be empathic to him if he did it on purpose or gives us a sense of how it was an accident.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

this site and it’s readers have their biases and it shows!

all of Tarantino’s films have been (A) overindulgent/oftentimes much too long and (B) offensive to someone. **yet** most of them have been greatness and I have not been offended. I suspect that pattern will continue.

Regardless, if you walk into the theater wanting to nitpick his films, non of his films would come out shiny at the end. Every single of his films can fill a review full of valid criticisms but does not stop some of those films from being masterpieces.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

A surprisingly enjoyable jaunt. Well made and acted but basically a trifle. Still, would have gladly given DiCaprio the Oscar for this over The Revenant.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBD

Dave S. is right. TWO politically questionable sequences? The entire movie is politically questionable at best, politically irresponsible if we're being honest. Equating the Manson cult with the late-60s counterculture is bizarre and reprehensible enough, but then creating a binary opposition in which the elite Hollywood establishment (Rick and Cliff) are the de facto, all-American white bread good guys and the youth generation is the plague they have to fend off to preserve their way is... reactionary at best. And now we're celebrating a movie that celebrates alpha male aggression against those "dirty hippies" that ruined poor Tarantino's imaginary Hollywood?

Uh...

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Julia Butters has been stealing scenes on TV’s American Housewife for the past few years. I guess network television is today’s version of hiding in plain sight.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Nathaniel - Supposedly the wife is named Natalie in the movie. It could be a coincidence, but it could also be Tarantino's idea of a classic Hollywood reference.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

@Jonathan—How do you propose divorcing the Manson cult from 60s counterculture? Like it or not the counterculture had excesses. If you've ever read Slouching Towards Bethlehem or any other accounts of California in those years, the "free love" hippie culture was rife with child abuse, disease, crime, and general recklessness—particularly as it all fell apart. Were it not for the counterculture, Manson never could've recruited those white bread suburban girls to do his bidding. It doesn't make their crimes less heinous or them less responsible but the context really matters.

That critique would be like saying "Chernobyl" was too hard on the Soviet Union, because the Bolsheviks meant well.

July 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

huh -- this is true of everyone. If you want to nitpick anyone's filmography you can find reason. But great artists are great artists, flaws and all.

Brevity --it must be. I've never even heard of that show. The only big 3 network show i *know* I've watched in the past few years or so without looking it up is The Good Place. This 'hiding in plain sight' must come from all the cord-cutting everyone's been doing. I only see tv through Hulu and Netflix and occassional pay cable if i find a way.

Heh -- have people really criticized Bruce Lee being portrayed as cocky? From my understanding he most definitely was. Lots of absurdly talented people are cocky about their gifts.

July 29, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I guess if you ONLY see characters as symbols of sociological concepts (colonialism, oppression) the handwringing about who beats who in a fight and how comes easily.

It's possible that Tarantino sees his characters as...people. Individuals. Amazing, I know!

July 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

@Nathaniel Yes, I’ve read some complaints from people who don’t like how Bruce Lee was characterized or don’t think he came across well.

July 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHeh

"It's possible that Tarantino sees his characters as...people. Individuals. Amazing, I know!"

I wish he did! But try convincing me that Tate operates as anything more than a symbol here. The only character with any dimension is Rick.

July 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Someone on a film forum asked what the hell would Robbie's Oscar clip if she were nominated, to which I reply with "the scene where she's in the theater and she beams happily whenever people react to her work".

July 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Chris -- it's weird to me that anyone after Cannes was talking about Margot being nominated for this. I cant imagine it happening unless the film is Oscar's favourite of the whole year. It's just not much of a part. Margaret Qualley, despite being a far less important character, has so much more to chew on.

July 29, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Way too long, and the editing was a mess. This is a film that particularly needed Sally Menke.

Pitt can win the Oscar for this. G--damn, he was so cool it was ridiculous.

July 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKyle

Nice to read the information here. The content of this post is very useful and informative.

July 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpiano tiles 2

Beautifully shot, but, ugh, not great. I basically spent the middle section counting the number of actors who were either children of actors or former child actors. Then, how much I missed The Rockford Files and Big Valley.

Also, Leo and Brad should use more sunblock.

July 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPam

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