Set in Los Angeles in 1969, right before the notorious Charles Manson murders, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood focuses on the lives of actor Rick Dalton, a television icon turned movie star whose popularity is in decline, and his enigmatic stunt double and good friend, Cliff Booth.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, and Dakota Fanning
Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Release date: July 26, 2019 (USA)
Run-time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Being no stranger to controversy, acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino sets his latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in Los Angeles in 1969, right before the notoriously nightmarish Manson murders. The story focuses on the lives of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a television icon turned movie star whose popularity is in decline, and his enigmatic stunt double and good friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton, full of self-doubt and fearful of the possibility of his impending irrelevancy, is looking for another big shot in Hollywood to save his troubled career. That’s when he discovers that the trending director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have just moved in next-door. This could present the perfect opportunity for Dalton to return to relevancy. However, those of you familiar with the history of the real-life horror know that a very pregnant Tate ended up being one of the unfortunate victims of the gruesome murders that occurred that ominous August night.
Before I dive into this review, I’d like to first acknowledge two things. One is that this is a difficult film to talk about without discussing spoilers, but as always, I remain committed to keeping my reviews spoiler-free. However, I have written an additional spoiler blog where I elaborate on some of my thoughts about the movie, which you can read by clicking here. Secondly, the more familiar you are with the story of the Manson Family and the subsequent murders they commit, the more you’ll get out of this movie. The film makes virtually no effort to explain their story nor provide any of the context in this horrific moment in history. As a result of this, I left Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feeling baffled by what Tarantino had done. Meanwhile, my father, who lived through this tragedy and who is much more knowledgeable about the events, enjoyed the movie far more than I did. Upon a great deal of reflection, I’ve come to a different understanding in regards to the film and its direction. By choosing not to focus on the Manson Family and by taking creative liberties with the actual story, Tarantino is refusing to give them any power in his film. Kudos to Tarantino for that. Although in his efforts to not explain and therefore not glorify the actual events, I suspect a lot of audiences, particularly younger viewers, are going to be completely caught off guard by what happens and will probably be as perplexed as I was.
Still, I didn’t go into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood completely uninformed, as it might appear. I knew the Manson murders were a part of it, and I thought I did adequate research on the events beforehand. It turns out, though, that I had hardly scratched the surface of the larger story as a whole, and my focus on the Tate murders very much misled me because the film disregards much of the truth behind that actual atrocious event. I was aware ahead of time that Tarantino had altered this story, but I didn’t suspect he would change it as much as he did, and it ultimately left me filled with an abundance of questions and confusion.
Nevertheless, putting the ending and inaccuracies aside, I have to admit that I was surprisingly bored throughout roughly half of the film. It’s very slow-paced and spends so much of its run-time just trying to bask in the final days of the golden age of Hollywood. A large portion of the 2 hour and 41 minute film is spent just watching characters drive around while listening to music on the radio. To me, it felt beyond excessive and unnecessary. Although, as I write this review with the film’s excellent soundtrack playing on my headphones, it has just occurred to me that in many ways, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is actually very much like the Grand Theft Auto video game series. It’s heavily fixated on establishing a livable, breathing world centered in a certain time and place, with a strong emphasis on capturing the music and radio of the era, filled with tons of pop culture references, a lot of driving, and its fair share of extreme violence. It’s fitting then to know that just about any gamer would tell you that their dream director for a Grand Theft Auto movie is Tarantino, and not only does this movie confirm he’d be a perfect match for the series, but it’s also very likely the closest we’ll ever get to that being a reality.
Tarantino does a remarkable job recreating the glory days of Hollywood, and even went to great lengths to have it represented as accurately as possible. It’s a commendable effort, although being of a younger age, its level of nostalgia was sadly lost on me. While it may be a respectable recreation, it still did little to capture my interest. Being that I love Tarantino’s work, and even consider him to be one of my top five favorite directors, the boredom I felt while watching this movie struck me as unusual and unexpected. Tarantino’s typical trademark top-notch dialogue is also nowhere to be found here. The conversations and dialogue left much to be desired, in my opinion. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, and yet at the same time there’s not much that happens in terms of a plot. Or at least not much outside of the mundane everyday lives of the film’s characters. Fortunately, the main characters themselves are strong enough that I was still invested in what they were up to, even if most of it was pretty uneventful.
Brad Pitt’s charismatic performance as stuntman Cliff Booth is the biggest highlight of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for me. He embodies the epitome of coolness, and even though it’s early to call it, I imagine I’ll be naming him as my favorite new character of 2019 at the end of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio’s great too, and he brings a lot of complexity to the troubled Rick Dalton. These two superstar actors make for an exceptional pairing, and their characters offer a unique contrast to each other. Dalton is distraught over his fading legacy despite seemingly having it all, as opposed to the publicly disgraced Booth who contently carries on and tries to make the best of his meager existence. The film is filled with a star-studded cast that’s frankly too much to mention, and none of the other actors are ever given more than a few minutes of screen-time anyway. While every performance in the film is sufficient, I suspect Pitt and DiCaprio will be in the conversation for awards contention when the time comes.
As I lightly touched on previously, Tarantino doesn’t devote much time to the Manson Family, although they do appear in a few pivotal scenes. One of those scenes in particular takes place at Spahn Ranch, which is an old abandoned movie set where members of the Manson Family have taken refuge. Without giving anything away, it’s this scene that gives us the clearest insight into how cultish and dangerous the Manson Family can be. It’s a wonderfully gripping and tense scene and in my opinion it’s one of the best movie moments of the year. It also includes a memorable performance from Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the blind owner of the ranch.
The film also features the martial arts movie legend, Bruce Lee, as played by Mike Moh. However, like many others, I have a big issue with Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee, and it has nothing to do with Moh who I believe does a respectable job and fits his appearance. The problem is that the film makes a joke out of Lee, portraying him as an arrogant martial arts fraud for a few cheap laughs. As a fan of Bruce Lee, I found this to be hugely disrespectful and off-putting. While it does serve the purpose of building up another character in the film, there is simply no reason they had to put down Lee and his legacy in the process.
In the end, I had a tough time with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It had become one of my most anticipated films of 2019, but I came out of the theater feeling largely unsatisfied and was left questioning so many of Tarantino’s decisions. Additionally, I was genuinely disturbed by the film’s climax, which I’ll explore in detail in my upcoming spoiler review, but I found it to be really difficult to watch. Although as I acknowledged earlier in the review, perhaps my expectations and my initial reaction to the film were a bit unfair. I do think it deserves a rewatch and further assessment, but that still doesn’t change the fact that I just didn’t enjoy it very much. Maybe over time I’ll come to terms with the movie and learn to like it and appreciate it more, but until then, my opinion remains unchanged.
5 Minute Movie Guy
*** UPDATE: Well, sure enough, my opinion did change. My dad convinced me to give the movie another shot before it’s pulled out of our local theater tomorrow, so we went and watched it again today (my second viewing, his third). I’m not one who often changes my opinion much after additional viewings, and I hate to sound like a push-over here, but I have to admit that this time I actually kind of loved it. It’s as if all of my own criticisms were debunked before my eyes. I knew what to expect, and I had come to terms with what the film does with its depiction of the Manson Family (which I think ultimately isn’t as baffling or tasteless as I originally thought, and in fact is probably the safest approach). Plus having a better understanding of the backstory and its context also helped me to appreciate the film more this time around.
Tarantino does indeed relish in the time period, but when you learn that the Manson murders marked the end of this beautiful era, it makes sense why he would want to savor the moment. It didn’t feel at all excessive to me this time around. Also, there really isn’t as much driving as I thought after my first viewing, and even in the longer car scenes, it serves the purpose of faithfully showcasing Los Angeles in the late ’60s and creating an authentic atmosphere. I was never bored during this second viewing, and I even developed a much greater appreciation for Rick Dalton and his character arc. I don’t think I really gave Leo quite enough credit the first time for his impressive and layered performance.
Lastly, in terms of the Bruce Lee ordeal, I’ve come to the realization that the whole scene is actually a flashback in Cliff’s mind, and therefore is likely an unreliable and biased perception. Cliff obviously didn’t get along well with him anyway, and it’s clear in the movie that Cliff discriminates against hippies and other races, which is all the more reason to believe his memory of Bruce Lee would be unfavorable. All in all, it’s crazy to me that my opinion changed so drastically during this follow-up viewing, but my main thought coming out of the theater this time was that Tarantino has truly put together a masterful piece of cinema. My previous grievances were the result of misunderstanding and false expectations. Having approached it again with a clearer perspective, I am convinced this is not only one of the best films of 2019, but also one of Tarantino’s finest.
5 Minute Movie Guy
*** My original review for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood had a score of 3.0 stars. ***