In a way, Quentin Tarantino is the Donald Trump of Hollywood — some people love him, some people loathe him, and some merely scratch their heads and mutter, “What the hell was that?” Meanwhile, Tarantino enthusiastically and unapologetically makes movies designed to please his base.
He’s at it again with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film loaded with classic Tarantino self-indulgence. It’s a movie that could easily lose an hour from its 2 hour, 45 minute running time and still work, but it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie.
We know Tarantino loves old Westerns, so he lingers on the movie-within-a-movie scenes. We know Tarantino loves violence, so there’s plenty of that. We know Tarantino loves to deconstruct the craft of making movies, so we get an 8-year-old girl meticulously breaking down the process of method acting. And we know Tarantino loves to decorate his substance with style, so there’s plenty on display here.
Set in 1969 Hollywood, the film is partially a love letter to that bygone era. Tarantino and his crew have painstakingly recreated the era’s look, from the clothing to the old Los Angeles bus stop signs. The set decoration, costuming, and cinematography are all brilliant, verging on breathtaking. They’ve even managed to capture the era’s sound, using snippets of real recordings from old L.A. Top 40 powerhouse KHJ-AM.
The movie’s performances are wonderful, led by its stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Both play characters who are on the down side of their career trajectories. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is a former TV series star whose fortunes have waned to the point where he’s relegated to occasional guest roles, playing bad guys who are doomed to lose. But he’s got it good compared to Pitt’s Cliff Booth. He’s been Dalton’s personal stunt man for years, but with the roles drying up, he’s relegated to the thankless task of being Dalton’s personal assistant.
When Booth gets fired from Dalton’s latest project after a hilarious encounter with Bruce Lee, the movie splits into two threads: Dalton seeks validation as he struggles to deliver a good performance, while Booth winds up crossing paths with the infamous Manson family.
Those paths come back together on the night of the famous Sharon Tate murder, giving Tarantino the opportunity to wage one last bloody battle and rack up a body count before the credits roll.
Like much of Tarantino’s work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood delivers laughs in intentionally unlikely places, while sucking you in emotionally to the plights of the movie’s heroes and anti-heroes. Of course, Tarantino does it in a bloated, sometimes verbose way, but the net result is a beautifully shot, beautifully acted work that threatens to wear out its welcome, but never quite does.