Quentin Tarantino movies are like McDonalds in France. You never know if you’re going to get a Quarter Pounder or a Royale with cheese.
Now, if you’re thinking, “That quote doesn’t quite make sense”, and “that’s not even from a Tarantino movie”, well, you’ve pretty much summed up what Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (OUATIH) is like.
With what is supposedly Tarantino’s penultimate film (he has famously said he’ll stop making movies after his 10th film), he has crafted a sonnet to his favourite things.
It is a hodge-podge of his greatest Hollywood pop culture loves and inspirations, lovingly mixed and blended together with the director’s unique filmmaking style, and stuffed (sometimes shoehorned) into a memorably eccentric but somewhat flawed package. In other words, classic Tarantino.
OUATIH is set in 1969, in the middle of one of Hollywood’s golden eras, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Rick Dalton, a former TV Western star trying to regain his former glory, and Brad Pitt as Rick’s best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth, who is now reduced to driving his friend around and doing menial tasks around his home.
To reveal more would be spoiling the movie, but like many Tarantino films, the way OUATIH’s characters interact and develop is more fun and interesting than the actual story.
Most of the film deals with Rick’s struggle to re-establish himself as a serious actor (he is constantly being cast as a villain opposite rising stars), but there are several more interesting story threads running parallel that make his story seem like, well, pulp fiction.
From Cliff’s run-in with the notoriously murderous Manson Family cult, to the ominous presence of Sharon Tate (played luminously by Margot Robbie), Tarantino keeps an ever-present, uneasy sense of potential violence in the background, keeping you on high alert for any potential triggers that might result in a bloody Kill Bill-esque scenario.
There are times when OUATIH falters though, and most of it is when the focus shifts to Rick while he’s in acting mode. It’s not that these scenes are boring, but at times they feel like a distraction from the main film, like they were shoehorned in just so Tarantino had an excuse to indulge in a bit of nostalgic fun. It’s like a Duplo piece in a box of regular Lego bricks – it still fits with the other parts, but it nonetheless feels a little out of place.
Still, it helps that he’s got two of Hollywood’s biggest A-Listers in the cast – Tarantino alumni DiCaprio (Django Unchained) and Pitt (Inglourious Basterds).
As strange as it is watching one of the greatest (and most recognisable) actors of this generation acting like a has-been actor from another generation, DiCaprio pulls this off with aplomb, managing to achieve the rare feat of seamlessly fitting into Tarantino’s vision while seeming completely out of place at the same time. Now that’s acting.
With DiCaprio getting all the serious meaty “acting” scenes (he even gets to torch Nazis with a flamethrower!), it may seem like Pitt drew the short straw. But his Cliff is arguably the movie’s most compelling character – unwaveringly loyal, ridiculously laidback, and so genuinely likeable that you half-expect Tarantino to kill him off at the most unexpected moment.
But that’s, again, the most charming (and sometimes frustrating) part of a Tarantino movie – the masterful building of characters, the ability to pull the rug from under your feet when you least expect it, and the eccentric twisting and weaving of genres and threads together to form one compelling tale.
You don’t go to a Tarantino movie for a mind-numbing action fest or Oscar-baiting drama. No, you go to a Tarantino movie for the journey, for the inglorious nitty gritty details, and to wonder “what the hell just happened” when you walk out of the cinema.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood may not rank as one of Tarantino’s best films, but it checks all those boxes perfectly.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino.