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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

The new (and, as the poster portentously proclaims, ninth) movie from Quentin Tarantino is a giddy, behind-the-scenes romp it would be hard not to enjoy. The film is set in a dreamy reconstruction of Hollywood in 1969 and foregrounds the story of faded matinee idol Rick Dalton and his trusty driver and stunt double Cliff Booth, played respectively by Tarantino alumni and ageing heart-throbs Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant, The Wolf of Wall Street, Titanic) and Brad Pitt (The Big Short, Moneyball, Interview With A Vampire), with the B-plot following Dalton's neighbour, rising star Sharon Tate, played here by Margot Robbie (I, Tonya, Focus, Suicide Squad). Original buzz about the film seemed to imply that its focus would be the grisly, real life murder of Tate by members of the cult surrounding Charles Manson, but safe to say that Tarantino puts his focus elsewhere, toying with audience expectations in a manner analogous to his bawdy Nazi-bashing fantasy Inglorious Basterds

As such, this is not a movie about the world as it was but rather a movie about the world as it might have been if, before he had turned his hand to creating the Universe, God had worked at a strip mall video store. Undoubtedly, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is overflowing with fizzy, poppy, crowd-pleasing moments. The soundtrack is fantastic, as we have come to expect from Tarantino who, again, uses diegetic music here to establish tone, pace and atmosphere.

Familiar faces pop up left, right and centre too, from Al Pacino chewing the scenery as a borderline Les Grossman studio executive, and Lena Dunham sashays on very briefly to offer a trashy cameo as a Manson acolyte.  In a nice nod to buried hatchets, Maya Hawke (Stranger Things) also makes a brief appearance. Daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, the latter of whom famously fell out with Tarantino in spectacular fashion during the filming of Kill Bill, Maya's part is small but symbolically significant; she is a kid who is going places.  Of course there are other members of "The Gang" here (Michael Madsen, et al) but, in spite of all the fun, as is often the case with Quentin Tarantino's recent output, not everything here quite works. In once instance, for example, long-time Tarantino stunt collaborator Zoe Bell pops up with a small speaking part, sharing screen time once again with Kurt Russell, but while she just about got away with it in Death Proof she feels outclassed here. 

Likewise, Damian Lewis appears in a bizarre vignette as Steve McQueen, but the moment is more distracting than gratifying. The film's structure is wibbly-wobbly in the extreme too, although it is debatable to what degree this is a problem.  On the one had, the movie feels a little rangey and rambling, but on the other it is pacy, almost always deeply enjoyable, and, thanks to the film's somewhat ramshackle form, it is unpredictable. This gives Once Upon A Time In Hollywood the rare capacity to both surprise and wrong-foot. Indeed, for every quibble one might have over fleeting moments of ridiculousness, there are countless sections of abject, blistering originality that comfortably qualify as sublime. DiCaprio is, of course, in fine fettle here. His performance is full of pathos, treading a neat line between tragedy and comedy with style.  Robbie is likewise excellent, although her part is limited. The role serves more as a symbol than a full-blown character.  The film's Most Valuable Player however is Pitt, who ultimately steals the show. In fact, it is a long time since Brad Pitt has put in a performance this good, possibly since 1999's Fight Club, and it is thrilling to see him being so unequivocally excellent. 

Admittedly, most of the crowd-pleasing moments are his by design, including a well-publicised dust-up with Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh (TV's Empire, Marvel's Inhumans and 2014's dire Street Fighter).  Another sees Pitt topless on the roof of a mansion, aviator shades on his face, scars all over his lean torso, the Hollywood Hills to his back...  It is the kind of image that dreams are made of. More than the set-pieces though, Pitt does an extraordinary job of playing second fiddle. During boozy dinner conversations, aimless wheelman errands, or the hasty assembly of roughly cobbled meals, his low-key, hang-dog swagger is such a pleasure to observe. And pleasure is the aim of the game here, really. Tarantino was clearly looking to give us what we wanted - wit, charm, style and violence, all set to toe-tapping tunes.  It is unlikely that the film will convert anyone not already a member of his church, but this is his penultimate film - with only one more to make, he is not looking to win you over.  If you aren't on board already, he seems to say, go and watch Playmobil The Movie or something. For those who know his oeuvre, I would propose that this is about as close as Tarantino will get to offering audiences another Pulp Fiction

This collection of stories is lighter and breezier than those found there, but it is that kind of movie - a layered crime caper that few people could ever make, and the kind of film that makes me very thankful that Quentin Tarantino exists. Indeed, many people have said that the movie is Tarantino's love letter to Hollywood, but I'm not sure that is true.

Sure, he wants us to see behind the magic, and pulls tricks somewhat akin to Scorcese's work in Hugo, but he leaves things rougher and dirtier.

This isn't glamour, he seems to say. It's fake, and filthy, and it will chew you up and spit you out.  If anything then, the film seems to consign Old Hollywood to the trash can.  Yes, it celebrates the idea of a happy ending, but it also seems to nod, knowingly, to the cynicism of the New Hollywood generation of directors that were about to dominate cinema in the 1970s, and who ultimately gave birth to him. Wouldn't it be better, he seems to ask, if we had not ended up quite so cynical? Maybe 1969 was the beginning of the end?  Maybe, Quentin. And maybe this is the beginning of the end of your reign as cinema's enfant terrible But let's not get too sentimental. In fact, could you just pop Brad Pitt up on that rooftop with his shirt off again? That's a movie I could watch all day... 

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