As film fans, there’s always a handful of films that we allow to pass us by. This usually isn’t at all indicative of their quality – sometimes, like with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, we’re just a little Late To The Party.
The films of Quentin Tarantino fit into a very specific bracket. They’re always big stories told on what feels like a small scale; epics peppered with countless human moments. In other words, the secret to his success is simple: he’s undeniably brilliant, and it shines through in every film he makes.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood speaks to Tarantino’s love of the film industry itself. It’s fair to say he’s as much a fan as he is a part of its machinery, so the general premise of OUATIH is pretty clear. Essentially, it’s the director’s way of capturing a sliver of the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age for a modern audience.
It follows once-beloved TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he struggles to rekindle his success in the late 1960s. Joining Rick is his long-time stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), but along the way he encounters a number of major celebrities of the era. Also featured are fictionalized versions of Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen, as well as a revised version of the murder of Sharon Tate by the followers of Charles Manson.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s Blend of Fact & Fiction Makes For A Film Industry Fairytale
By setting the film among real events but following a fictional actor, Tarantino strikes an interesting balance. There’s a number of characters and events that will be familiar to those with an interest in ’60s Hollywood, but there’s also a revisionist approach to them that creates a vague air of comedy. Tarantino clearly reveres the era and its stars, but also feels confident putting his own stamp on their stories.
The nature of this particular approach makes Dalton and Booth feel like bona fide legends. Despite the fact that they aren’t real, their supposed place among Hollywood’s elite immediately elevates the characters. This gives the whole film a glitzy charm that evokes true Hollywood magic. But is it a little too on the nose even for Tarantino?
OUATIH Feels A Little Self-Indulgent, But Is Bolstered By Its Stellar Cast & Strong Script
In many ways, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels like Tarantino stroking his own ego. At times, he’s effectively glorifying the craft of movie-making, even while gently poking fun at Hollywood’s many foibles. Though it’s never offensive in its assertions about Hollywood, it does assume that the audience love the film industry as much as Tarantino himself does. It’s in these moments that it runs the risk of alienating its audience.
Thankfully, the script is tightly written, and the film’s stars demonstrate their well-earned prestige. DiCaprio and Pitt in particular shine in their leading roles, exuding charm even as they play self-obsessed alcoholics and alleged murderers. It’s a story that no other director or cast would be capable of pulling off, further elevating the film beyond the sum of its parts.
Despite a few inherent risks in its storytelling, OUATIH is engaging from beginning to end. By blending fact and fiction, it blurs the line between movie and reality, making it in many ways the quintessential Tarantino experience. It’s a film about film made by a film fan for film fans – classic Tarantino, in other words.
Summary: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes a trip back to the golden age of Hollywood. They don’t make films like this anymore – except, apparently Quentin Tarantino does. It’s a little self-serving, but it’s also darkly comic, oddly touching, and quietly epic.
Highlight: The final flamethrower scene is classic Tarantino fare; it’s absurdly violent and irreverently funny, breaking up the tension of an otherwise intense climax.