Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Premise: Set in 1969, a B-list actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend and stuntman (Brad Pitt) navigate Hollywood in the twilight of the studio era. Meanwhile, members of the Manson Family lurk in the outskirts of Los Angeles.
What Works: Quentin Tarantino’s filmography is directly informed by the cinema of the 1960s and 70s and Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is set in the period and place where those films were being made. This is a nostalgic picture, even wistful in places, and Tarantino takes the viewer on a tour through this retro period. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood recreates its era well. The locations and outfits look of their time and appear lived in rather than manufactured by the costuming and prop department. One of the distinguishing features of Tarantino’s filmography is his use of music. The songs are particularly interesting in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood in part because of the tunes selected. Nearly every track is of 1969 but Tarantino avoids the most obvious songs of the period which are featured in nearly every other movie about this time. The music is also integrated into the movie with a little more restraint than some of Tarantino’s other movies. A lot of the songs are source music, meaning that they emanate from radios or other sources within the diegesis of the story. Since 2007’s Death Proof and continuing through Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has been in a reflective mode, commenting upon cinema history and critiquing the politics of different genres. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is about La La Land itself and in particular Hollywood’s function as a dream factory that manufactures optimistic and reassuring stories in which badness is punished, goodness wins the day, and opportunities are just around the next corner. This film doesn’t critique that idea but rather applies it to the story of a television actor and his best friend and stunt double played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively. They are paired well together and they are very funny. DiCaprio and Pitt are limited actors—DiCaprio’s performances typically alternate between suave charm and violent anger with little in between—but Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood features one of DiCaprio’s best performances. He achieves a rare level of nuance while also getting the humor and rhythms of Tarantino’s writing. Margot Robbie is also impressive as Sharon Tate. Robbie doesn’t have much to do but she is a physical match for Tate and Robbie brings a bouncy energy to the role as a young woman enjoying fame and success.
What Doesn’t: Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is a nostalgic film and like a lot of nostalgia it distorts the past. By 1969 the old studio system was kaput and the film industry was at the beginning of the most exciting period in American movies. However, that era had little to do with the existing norms of Hollywood studio films. Pictures like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy bucked the trends and broke the rules. They didn’t give the audience happy Hollywood endings. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood misunderstands where the industry was at that moment. And, as is typical of nostalgia, the film views the past superficially. The moviemakers put a lot of effort into placing the viewer into this imagined version of 1969 but then don’t do very much with it. Unlike Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained which subversively critiqued the war and western genres, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is content to bask in its adoration for this period of cinema history. It’s especially superficial about the Manson Family. The most significant violent crime of its period is treated as a punchline.
Bottom Line: Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is well produced, frequently funny, and has a few terrific performances. It’s also a well-produced trifle that is wrapped up in its own self-indulgence.
Episode: #760 (August 4, 2019)