Once upon a time in Hollywood review

A Tinseltown fairytale

Full disclosure: I have a thing for Los Angeles. I tell people it’s because my first memories are there. Dad moved us there in 1979 when he went to work for Capitol records. So, the sunlight, the smell, the feel of the city always moves me way more than I can reasonably explain. Just thought I’d put that out there before I review ‘Once upon an time in Hollywood’ – Quentin Tarantino’s love song to Tinseltown. 

Now, I’m not a Tarantino fan boy. In fact, I find many of his films self indulgent, too long, striving for coolness at the expense of story, overly reliant on the fame of his stars, rather than the portrayal of character. But, without question, ‘Once upon a time’ has become my favorite Tarantino movie. Why? 

 A Hollywood tale

The story in short: we simply follow TV star, turned B movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo di Caprio) and his stunt double/gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) through six months of their Hollywood adventures. Woven through their attempts to revive Rick’s career and be good guys, we follow Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) enjoying life in LA. Her historical gruesome murder is a constant threatening dark cloud hanging over the seemingly lightweight story. And we are often reminded of this impending doom by appearances of the Manson family. The story slowly but surely builds to a tense and shocking climax – which I won’t spoil.

 Slow burn

The movie starts off gently, with plenty of laughs, provided for example by Al Pacino in the guise of agent Marvin Schwarz. The two main stars play off each other extremely well, and they make great company. 1969 Los Angeles is rendered in all its glory, with quintessential Tarantino flourish. It definitely took me back to the ‘good old days’. Margot Robbie is terrific as Sharon Tate. The dialogues are typically fun and snappy. But as the newness wears off, the movie settles into a slow, dare I say it, at times quite boring flow. I found myself wondering: “What am I looking at and why?” – Rick’s attempt to keep his career alive just seems too little story to carry the movie. Added to this is the fact that the story is headed in the direction of a terrible crime – which made me quite uneasy. Knowing Tarantino’s insensitivity to historic tragedies, such as the ‘funny’ jew hunting scene in Inglourious Basterds and the shocking inappropriateness of Django Unchained, I was preparing myself for a very awkward finale. To be honest, I was preparing to walk out. 

 Grande finale

But, without spoiling the entire movie I will just say that it is precisely that finale that justifies the entire movie. Every long minute, every detour and dead end is brought to perfect completion in the final ten minutes or so. The slow pace of proceedings, the plotlessness of it all, the random silliness: everything clicks. The clue is in the title: it’s a fairytale. In the land of tinsel and dreams, this is how a lover of film and romance of cinema would have his do-over – it’s a bitter sweet fantasy. And quite personal. Suddenly the plot clicks too: Rick’s ambition is mirrored in the fantasy of the movie at large: to keep the dream alive a bit longer, to make 1969 just another year in LA, rather than the end of an era.

 I left the cinema feeling simultaneously uplifted and melancholic. Pondering my feelings and admiring Tarantino for the first time. Sure, it’s not without flaws, but I love it – a bit like LA itself.