By Stephen Shea
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) tells the stories of a fictional TV star Rick Dalton, his stunt double Cliff Booth, and Actress Sharon Tate in 1969 Hollywood, around the time of the Manson murders. It is an ambitious film that has all the trappings of a Tarantino movie (feet, violence, stylish dialogue), but also has a warmth to it that, surprisingly, mixes well with the constant dread that hangs over the film.
The standout component of the film is the quality of the performances. Leo DiCaprio is incredible in the film, beautifully playing a man from a bygone era struggling to find his new place in a new Hollywood. He is hilarious and a firecracker. Brad Pitt is also fantastic, as he embodies a character who is in the thick of Hollywood, but is still an outcast. There had been initial reports after the Cannes screening of the film that Margot Robbie didn’t get much screen time. While she doesn’t have a ton of lines, her performance is still effective. She embodies the warmth and hopeful nature that Sharon Tate represented, a scene in which she goes to a theater to watch herself on screen is one of the best of the film. Watching her slowly let her guard down as the movie goes on and being genuinely touched by the audience just warms the heart. In a much smaller role Margaret Qualley is fantastic playing one of Manson’s disciples. It’s not a surprise that the performances are so great but I was not expecting them all to be as good as they were.
The film also balances comedy and dread fantastically. The sense of dread is inherent based on what we know happens to Sharon Tate and it hangs over the film even in it’s lighter, more heartfelt moments. The movie though, is 100 percent a comedy, and while I won’t say anything about the third act, some of the biggest laughs are there.
The characters are all so well-drawn and realized. There are no character tropes here which is refreshing. A perfect example is a precocious eight-year-old actress on the set of the pilot Rick is shooting. She seems so written at first, talking older than she is, but she quickly becomes more than that. The film itself never goes quite in the directions that you’d expect with relationships between characters and it just feels refreshing. The trailers were great, as they tell you nothing about the movie.
While the movie is well-paced and never wastes a scene, it clicks in at two hours and forty minutes and despite the pacing, it feels it. There also is a scene where there is a slight bit of overkill for comedic effect involving a male character and female character that made me feel a little uneasy. The movie also feels directionless for the first segment, and while it soon kicks into gear, it was slightly confusing for a bit.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a movie that made me feel good. It is a sweet love letter to what many consider was the end of an era for Hollywood after the Sharon Tate Murder. It is a funny and earnest film that is one of Tarantino’s best of his recent filmography.