VOD film review: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Ivan Radford | On 27, Dec 2019
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
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“Are you an actor?” “No, I’m a stuntman.” That’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the magic of the movies. In 1960s LA, the same is true of cinema as it is now: success and fame is fleeting, but legacies can last for decades. So it’s perhaps only apt that the Pulp Fiction director, one of the most vocal lovers of film to step behind the camera, should use the very format he idolises to tackle the thing that shocked Hollywood in 1969 and left its own dark legacy: the Manson murders.
We pick things up before the shocking multiple-homicide has occurred, slumming it from set to set with Rick and Cliff, a double-act who could easily have their own spin-off TV show. Rick, though, is at the stage of his twilit career where he’s staring at TV like an abyss threatening to swallow his reputation whole – should he take cliched villainous parts in cheap cop dramas in order to stay in the US, or head to Italy where he can get meatier roles in Spaghetti Westerns?
That existential crisis plays out through a hilariously committed turn from DiCaprio, who shouts “I’m a has-been” at himself while demolishing his own trailer, then breaks down in tears when a young co-star compliments his performance on-set. Pitt, meanwhile, luxuriates in his character, laying back into his drawling dialogue and intimidating physical presence like a curled feline ready to pounce.
Watching the duo make their way through period Los Angeles is worth the price of entry alone. Tarantino recreates Hollywood’s golden era with gorgeous attention to detail, right down to the fake TV shows, films and – yes – adverts that Rick appears in. One scene featuring Mike Moh as Bruce Lee is overly cartoonish, but it’s never less than entertaining to see the duo rolling through this haze of showbiz myths, their bond an anchor amid the changing industry landscape.
Through this world also walks young Sharon Tate, played with an A-list glow by Margot Robbie. Unrecognisable from her other, versatile turns, it’s an excellent performance that sees Robbie inhabit the starlet completely, so much so that she adds depth to the surface-level depiction of Tarantino’s screenplay, and the superficial camerawork that seems to linger on her feet. One scene where she goes into a cinema to watch an audience watch her in The Wrecking Crew is pure gold.
On the edge of that bubble lurks the Spahn Ranch, the former TV set where Cliff once filmed and where Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his “family” live. A Western-tinged showdown between Cliff and the group, when he ventures out to see what they’re up to, is packed with ominous suspense, but the juggling of this storyline, Sharon Tate’s rising star and Rick’s falling fame isn’t as graceful as the lyrical cinematography would have you think; Tate’s subplot needs more screentime to feel meaningful, while Rick and Cliff’s antics are the most entertaining strand, but are also so drawn out that they drag down the whole pace.
The result is mature in places, but uneven in others, leaving you with more unanswered questions than conjured-up cinema fables; references to Cliff’s past actions, for example, make him a dubious choice of hero, something that may be intentional, but if so, that intent isn’t clear. The final act, meanwhile, is an audacious piece of historical revision, but one that, no matter how well-meaning, nonetheless descends into uncomfortable violence that feels too gratuitous to be profound or justified. More fairytale than fact, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a thoughtful reflection upon memories and movie magic, but it’s no timeless classic.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.