Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: Hollywood, 1969. Middle-aged former cowboy TV star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his best friend/stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) find themselves faced with a changing Tinseltown. Meanwhile, Rick’s next-door-neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), seems on the verge of a career the likes of which poor Rick can only dream of.

REVIEW: Quentin Tarantino’s movies are always an event, especially with the ticking clock he has set, going on record over-and-over that once he’s made ten movies, his feature career is coming to an end. QT’s always been keen on building a legacy, with each film a bold and distinctive work. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is his ninth, and thus likely his second-to-last film, but had he chosen it to be his swan song, it would have been one of the best in film history, being a sly summation of all his themes to date.

Breaking with the novel-style chapter breaks that have become his signature (although it still uses a sharp three-act structure). ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD stands as one of his boldest works. He’s played in a lot of genres and this has nods to all of them, with extended sections depicting Rick Dalton’s “Bounty Law” TV series allowing him to dig into the western genre once again, while we get a cheeky, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS-style aside in a clip from Dalton’s low-budget, DIRTY DOZEN-style war epic. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD even has a nice nod to Kung-Fu flicks via Cliff Booth’s mano-a-mano scrap with Mike Moh’s (uncanny) Bruce Lee.

Yet, in many ways, this is a departure for QT, in that at its heart it’s perhaps the most relatable thing he’s ever done. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dalton and Brad Pitt’s Booth may look like movie gods, but both are very human, more so than any of QT’s leads since Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown. They’re not invincible and not especially clever; instead, they’re just two guys trying to get by in a town that doesn’t have any use for them anymore.

All this adds up to an epic deep dive into the Hollywood mystique that makes the movie feel, in many ways, like QT’s masterpiece. While the Manson Family slayings are the hook this is baited with, Tarantino wasn’t lying when he went on record saying this wasn’t a Charles Manson movie – rather it’s used to illustrate QT’s theory that this event was the ultimate end to the golden age of Hollywood, ushering a newer, more cynical era. That makes this his fairy tale look at what Hollywood and it’s movies used to be – in that it’s shown here to be a constantly sunny town filled with larger than life movie gods, great music, and excitement– until the family arguably ended this hedonistic era.

Instead of focusing on Manson, or even Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, Dalton and Booth dominate. Rick Dalton’s one of those sixties actors that could have been Steve McQueen with the right breaks, with DiCaprio bringing an unusual, stuttering vulnerability to the part. Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the cool, unflappable one, and Tarantino was right on when he said this was his take on the classic buddy movie – kinda like BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID or THE STING. Robbie plays the real-life Sharon Tate, who was married to Roman Polanski – many have commented on her lack of dialogue but they seem to be missing the point. Her Tate is meant to be symbolic of a whole era, and this explores her iconic, perceived innocence – but this isn’t a Sharon Tate biopic nor is it meant to be. That said, Robbie perfectly captures her.

Overall though, this is DiCaprio and Pitt’s movie, with them dominating throughout. The set pieces are excellent, with one focusing on Dalton’s work on the TV show “Lancer” and another on Booth exploring the Manson Family run Spahn ranch (with Bruce Dern as George Spahn, in a role originally cast with Burt Reynolds before he died). Still, it has a looser structure that’s unlike anything he’s done since JACKIE BROWN. It’s classic Hollywood filmmaking at its boldest. It’s also frequently hilarious, with DiCaprio once again showing how underrated his comic chops are, previously shown in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. His chemistry with Pitt is the stuff buddy movie classics are made of, but he also plays brilliantly off child actress Julia Butters, as a child actress on “Lancer” who teaches him method acting.

Typical for Tarantino, every part is meticulously well cast, from Damian Lewis as a convincing Steve McQueen in one scene, to Timothy Olyphant and the late Luke Perry as Lancer stars James Stacy (whose ultimate fate is one of the darkest, unknown chapters in Hollywood history) and Wayne Maunder. Then there’s Margaret Qualley as the Manson Family member who takes a liking to Booth, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Bell as stunt coordinators, Al Pacino as a hilarious Hollywood agent, and tons of cameos from Tarantino regulars and cult icons.

This is an especially ride movie if you know the era as far as movies go and have read Mark Harris’s “Pictures of a Revolution” and John Gregory Dunne’s “The Studio”, both of which provide a fascinating background to the onscreen action. Even if not though, it’s impossible to imagine anyone who comes to the site not falling hard to this Hollywood epic. Everything about it is top shelf, from Robert Richardson’s 35mm photography (which I wish I had seen on celluloid) to the impeccable soundtrack of period hits and, more intriguingly, non-hits. It might be one of QT’s last, but it’s one of his best – maybe even his best since PULP FICTION, although another decade and another dozen or so viewings are warranted before any final decision is made. At any rate, it might be the quickest 2hours and 40 min you’ll ever spend in a movie theater (and stay through the credits for a nice QT nod to his cinematic universe).


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.