Perhaps no other auteur is as reverential of his references than Quentin Tarantino. His eight previous films were each a lovingly curated pastiche of borrowed imagery, imaginatively recontextualized by a visionary cinephile. His affection for film history is perhaps only matched by his passion for filmmaking, which is what makes a movie like Once Upon a Time In Hollywood feel like such a personal project. This is his homage to a fabled time in American pop culture, the director’s wistful sentimentality for the period permeating every frame.
Set in Tarantino’s version of 1969 Hollywood (we won’t give away any twists, but this is an alternate history), this is essentially a buddy comedy, a languid hangout relying almost entirely on the effortless chemistry of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a fading star whose fame from playing cowboys in black-and-white 50s’ TV shows is slowly eroding into irrelevance. Meanwhile Pitt plays his stunt double and long-time best friend Cliff Booth. Together, they’re a hoot – but the jovial camaraderie belies internal melancholy.
While Rick is perpetually wrecked by insecurity over his diminishing stature in the industry (now relegated to guest spots on random episodes and starring in Spaghetti Westerns over in Italy), Cliff is carefree and cocksure, happy to live modestly as Rick’s gofer and comforting companion. The contrast doesn’t just inform their friendship, it also informs the film’s themes of fleeting fame and obsolescence. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is a vivid look into a vanished world in the midst of constant change, eager to create icons and forget about them just as quickly.
Eschewing structure and story, Tarantino simply leaves us to follow Rick and Cliff’s journeys through this expressionistic fairytale rendering of Tinseltown. This is where Tarantino’s obsessions are laid bare – from sitting in backlots to see film crews work, to recreating memorabilia from films and programs (real and fictional), to even watching an entire Dalton scene on television (with running commentary by Rick and Cliff). There is no plot to speak of, the film instead savours every shaggy moment, clinging to an era soon to be swept away.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood feels like a reverie for a lost past (an immersion that can be credited to the film’s meticulous costuming and production design) that can be funny and playful, but also troubling and scary. Cliff’s fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is comically farcical, but his encounters with the Manson family is filled with nothing but tension. Likewise, the film’s detours following Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) constantly juxtaposes the young actress’s effervescent light and joyous warmth with foreboding dread thanks to our knowledge of her fate.
How fact and fiction are intertwined and tweaked is not to be given away, but at no point does the fantasy take you out of this loose and lived-in reimagining. Tarantino’s ninth film may be his most star-studded but it’s also his most polarizing. While some may find his indulgence esoteric and overlong, others will find it mesmerizing and engrossing. Regardless, no one can deny that this heartfelt valentine to Hollywood is aesthetically breathtaking and thematically resonant. Perhaps this film does cast a nostalgic sheen over harsh reality, but when life is a tragic, isn’t the magic of cinema an escape to a happily ever after?