Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a time machine with a buddy movie at its core and a side of Charles Manson. It’s heavy with nostalgia and you’ll feel completely immersed in 1969 Hollywood by the time you’re through. Every detail, every indulgence is just right.
The movie opens with a black and white interview. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a movie star who’s been spending more and more time on TV lately. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s best friend and stunt man. They’ve been working together for a lifetime and as Rick’s star begins to fade, Cliff is getting less work as a stunt man and more work as Rick’s driver. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the story of Rick and Cliff, what they’ve gone through, what they’re going through now, and how they’ll say goodbye to one hell of a good run. While that is the bulk of the story, that’s not all there is to it. Later in the film, there’s a shift in focus from Rick, Cliff and the danger of fading into irrelevance to the Manson family and the danger of knives piercing flesh and vital organs. It’s abrupt, violent, hilarious and almost too much to take in. It’s full-frontal Tarantino and fun to watch. In the end, the movie is more so about Hollywood than any one individual character. Turns out you can look at anything through a good pair of rose-colored glasses, even blood, guts, and infamy.
Rick Dalton isn’t ready to fade into obscurity, so when he’s approached about doing some movies in Italy, he reluctantly signs on. Initially, he’s hesitant. Spaghetti Westerns aren’t his thing, but he’s hopeful that something will come of it. Rick struggles to focus but he’s ready to do the work. He knows he’s still got enough fire inside to produce some great performances. Rick needs to get those out before it’s too late. That’s where Leonardo DiCaprio comes in, and this man delivers in spades.
DiCaprio creates a pitch-perfect, Golden-Age-of-Hollywood kind of star: good looks, great sound bites, and perfect hair. Dalton is acutely emotional and messy but ultimately focused and committed to doing good work. He drinks too much, smokes too much, loves his job, lifestyle, and best friend. Through him, DiCaprio conveys the vulnerability and insecurity that comes with age in a fickle industry that often values youth and novelty over talent. DiCaprio’s accent fit like a perfectly tailored suit. His affected speech serves to magnify Dalton’s insecurities. The perpetual jitters and high functioning alcoholism humanize our aging movie star. DiCaprio does such an excellent job with Rick that he had me wondering if Rick Dalton was an actual person, some obscure 1940s actor I’d never heard of but nope. It’s all DiCaprio.
Cliff Booth—Rick’s driver/stunt man/everything—on the other hand, has made peace with his station in life. He lives in a trailer behind a drive-in. He shares his space with his beloved Pit Bull Brandy. The two live in peace. No one bothers them because in addition to talent, Cliff’s got a bad reputation. Cliff’s wife drowned and some think Cliff may have been the one to do the deed. The whispers have put an obvious strain on his career as a stuntman, even with all of Rick’s backing. Despite the grey cloud that hangs over him, Cliff is content. He’s fine driving Rick around and making sure his life is running smoothly. He rolls with the punches and does so with a devastating smile and loads of charisma. Brad Pitt as Booth is the perfect paring for DiCaprio’s Dalton. Cliff (despite maybe being a murderer) is the good guy to Dalton’s perpetual “bad guy,” two sides of the same coin. Thanks to Pitt and his soothing centered-ness, Cliff ends up anchoring Rick’s erratic dramatics.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate is enchanting. Yup, enchanting. Despite not being in the movie for most of the film, she has an indelible impact. Robbie has a way of dispensing pure joy and excitement--joie de vivre, really--with laser precision. She gives Tate a wide-eyed innocence which she contrasts subtly with Tate’s decidedly mysterious nature. Robbie, as usual, does more than justice to her part, she keeps a legend alive while giving us a taste of what might have been.
The Manson aspect of the story was one of the things I was most excited for when I saw the first trailer, but that didn’t end up fleshing out the majority of the story. With that said, the scene at Spahn Movie Ranch is a veritable showdown between cliff, his former colleague George Spahn, and every Manson family member present at the time. The tension build is so good, it’s obscene. Quentin Tarantino (Director) has made a movie about the movies for the kind of people that obsess about every detail in movies. You know, his usual audience. If you’re in that category, then this will undoubtedly satisfy. If you’re not, don’t worry. The dynamic between Rick and Cliff is so thick with emotion, charisma, and history that it will carry you from opening to closing credits.