Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (*****) The work of a master

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – 2019

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Julia Butters

Somewhere in the world there are movie nerds debating over what it is that makes Tarantino a great director. Fueled by the dream that they too could someday be discovered in understanding the formula of writing, camerawork and watching obscure films while dining on junkfood and living in their parent’s basement. God Bless these folks in their endeavors. They could be spending their time clubbing old people who are trying to traverse the wrong street, like those delightful anti-facist facists. In a way, his latest film touches on that very disconnect as it happened in the late ’60’s in Hollywood and its surrounding hills.

DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, small time screen presence in the mold of Burt Reynolds, while Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, his longtime stunt double and best friend. He’s channeling Hal Needham via Tom Laughlin. They are ambling through guest spot to guest spot. Dalton gets roles when he can, he gets Booth roles as a stunt double less often. In between Cliff is his driver and all around fix it guy.

Next door to Dalton is young starlet Sharon Tate (Robbie). Her star is rising after having met and married director Roman Polanski. She ambles throughout her days enjoying living while her husband is away.

After getting an offer to go to Italy and star in a few spaghetti westerns, Dalton suffers a crisis of confidence. He should be farther along, he thinks. He’s starting to feel like a has been. Booth, who has a past both heroic and horrific, acts as a balance. That Dalton is an alcoholic tends to complicate things. We see him practice his lines all night, then after 8 shots he forgets his lines in his guest spot for the show Lancer.

Butters as inspired by Streep

During this time, he meets young Trudi Frasier (Butters) who is a centered young actress who wants to be known as an actor. Their initial interaction is both a superbly written and filmed excorcism of Tarantino’s #metoo past, inspired by Meryl Streep. It works not only as an “I get it” to critics of his handling of women characters, it puts Dalton’s story into an intense critical mass that explodes a couple of scenes later.

Booth, meanwhile catches the eye of Pussycat (Qualley) an eccentric hippie living with the rest of the Manson family. She takes him out to the Spahn ranch and things get incredibly interesting when she and the rest of her cult discover he’s no stranger to the owner (Dern),

Tarantino is in no hurry to tell this story as the film clocks in at 2 hours and 41 minutes. There is little time wasted onscreen, however. Nearly every shot has a resonance that gives the viewer important information, even the shots designed for television. His ability to hold tension through several different scenes is unparalleled. Most directors are lucky if they have one scene to rivet the viewer in a film. Tarantino can do it seemingly at will.

This is also indicative of the acting talent. Robbie does a wonderful job giving the perfect fantastical visage of a Hollywood angel untouched by the stain. She floats through several scenes without one hint of tension or derision. This acts as a counter to the world that Dalton and Booth inhabit. Anyone who knows the history of Hollywood understands this cannot stay that way.

DiCaprio is wonderful playing completely against type. If he feels a bit like a nicer version of his insecure Calvin Candle, he completely inhabits the role of an actor who has no understanding that he is transitioning. Many moments in the film give glimpses of that Reynolds charm so readily available for the camera. When we see him off camera, we see the depth so many thought must have been lacking in Reynolds’ character.

Brad Pitt has simply never been better. If he doesn’t exactly expand his range to 12 Monkeys range, his portrayal is spot on. He’s carries the load, quite literally. Where Dalton sees failure, Booth quite necessarily sees success. His relationship with his friend is a serious one, even if it’s not always easy to take Dalton seriously. He also has an endearing relationship with his female pitbull, named Brandy that is so sweet, it may just change the image of the breed.

Pitt is worthy of Oscar consideration, but then Tarantino often has roles so good they’re overlooked (read: Samuel L. Jackson). It’s hard to know if the twist at the end of this film will keep this film in Tarantino’s most memorable or beloved column. It’s easy to take him for granted at this point, It’s hard to imagine how much he will be missed if he limits himself to just 10 films.

If just one of those future filmmakers he’s inspired becomes as good as he is, perhaps it would be worth it. Perhaps.

(***** out of *****)

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