The Case for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
When you sit down to watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood two things are readily apparent. The first is that everyone who made this movie is clearly having a blast doing so and the second is that this film feels different. It doesn’t open with a bloody wedding, a Nazi on the hunt, or the reclamation of a magic(?) briefcase. It begins with a TV interview and some casual banter among friends before we jump ahead into a meeting with a casting agent. This is Tarantino at his most mellow and most human. It’s also him at his absolute best.
The film is shockingly simple in its plotting but that doesn’t stop every crisis and personal drama from hitting home. Tarantino does a remarkable job setting up the principle characters’ arcs and the straightforward narrative give him ample room to dive into who they are and explore why their anxieties and stresses feel so familiar to us. The anxiety of aging. The fear of being forgotten. The dream of just one more chance.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood succeeds largely on the strength of its leads. This is some of the absolute best work that both DiCaprio and Pitt have ever done and Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are two of Tarantino’s most fascinating and enjoyable characters yet. Yes, those are both incredibly high bars and both are cleared by a comfortable margin. DiCaprio has pathos to spare as he portrays Dalton’s every ache and frustration with his own fading star as he frantically tries to remain relevant and preserve his sense of self. He’s Rick fuckin’ Dalton. He’s just not so sure who that is anymore. Meanwhile Pitt is at his toughest and most stoic as the already forgotten stuntman, Cliff Booth. Booth in particular occupies such a fascinating role in the narrative that I won’t spoil, but suffice to say there will be plenty of think-pieces written about him. He mixes very human darkness with empathy and charm in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on screen before.
Of course, all the personal drama hangs in the shadow of what’s to come. Manson girls loom around the city and Charlie himself pops in to add a dash a genuine menace to the proceedings, with one sequence at the Manson camp being a truly Hitchcockian all-timer. Tarantino masterfully captures the tension of a Hollywood teetering on the edge of a dramatic shift and the dread of that impending change manifests in a host of interesting ways from method-acting eight-year-olds to hippies just beginning to explore their bloodlust.
However, this very real and explosive violence lurking just below the surface is often obscured by the various depictions of on-screen brutality in Rick Dalton’s various cinematic exploits and eventually a clear line is drawn between these cartoonish depictions and the eventual true acts of ugliness… until that idea is emphatically shut down as the scapegoating whataboutism that it really is. This is a film that has a fair amount of fun with those who would blame Hollywood for real world violence while still acknowledging that this supposed sun bleached paradise is far from immune to world’s true ugliness.
Though for all its meditations on violence and aging, the most surprising bit of the film is just how ridiculously funny it is. You can argue whether DiCaprio or Pitt have given better performances but it’s much tougher sledding to say that either has ever been funnier. This is Tarantino’s funniest and brightest work. Full stop. There are belly laughs from start to finish and the lasting message is one of hope. Anyone who sees it (and plenty who haven’t) will tell you it’s a love letter to Hollywood, but it’s also a love letter to the future. Hollywood chews people up and spits them out and it’s natural to worry about getting lost in the shuffle, but there are things worth far more. A friendship like the one Rick and Cliff share carries them through the Hollywood grinder as the rest eventually sorts itself out. Remain calm, because despite whatever darkness we all have to endure everything will be alright. And in the meantime? Why not sit down and enjoy some cinema?
See it in theaters. Then see it again.