Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
In a market dominated by remakes, reboots, and sequels, it is nice to still have a director like Quentin Tarantino out there making new content. Truth be told, Tarantino borrows as much from pop culture history as do the remakes and reboots, but then he takes what he borrows and weaves it into something that feels fresh and original. For what he considers to be his ninth feature film—he counts the two Kill Bill movies as one—Tarantino offers up Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, his tribute to the center of the cinematic world. The resulting product is an interesting one that feels both like the most Tarantino movie of all time and the least Tarantino movie of all time.
It is 1969 in Los Angeles and Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a faded television star who once headlined his own hit show, but now can only secure guest spots playing villains. As the movie opens, Rick is meeting with an agent who assures him that the only way to get his star to rise again is to travel to Italy and make spaghetti westerns. Dalton initially rejects the offer, which he feels like is a slap to the face, and instead begins shooting yet another spot in which he will ultimately be dispatched by the show’s hero.
Rick pals around with his stuntman Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, who, while technically an employee, is also Rick’s best and only friend. When he is not chauffeuring Rick from home to set or having a beer with him to celebrate his latest gig, Cliff drives around town in Dalton’s Cadillac. It is while cruising that he comes across a young hippie who calls herself Pussycat. He offers her a ride back to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where she lives with her “family.” This, of course, is the notorious Manson Family, and Rick Dalton happens to live next door to film director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate, who along with her houseguests, were murdered by members of the Manson family in August of 1969.
Tarantino’s blending of his fictional characters with real life historical figures is reminiscent of his 2009 World War II drama Inglourious Basterds in more ways than one. That is one of the ways this movie feels very much like a Tarantino movie; that, along with the random-seeming flashbacks, tons of cameos from regular Tarantino contributors—even some of their now-grown children—and tons and tons of references to movie and television history.
Unlike Basterds, though, in which you can count the total number of scenes on two hands, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood feels more sprawling. While plenty of characters talk to each other throughout the film, there are very few drawn-out, pop culture-laden conversations that take up large chunks of screentime. And because of this, the movie sometimes feels like it lacks a plot tightness that characterizes his previous work.
That is not to say that there aren’t any great scenes in this movie; quite the contrary. The scene in which Cliff shows up at the Spahn Ranch suspecting that the “family” living there has done something awful to the owner is a terrific work of suspense filmmaking. There are also a couple of great moments on set for DiCaprio’s Dalton, and the finale is Tarantino filmmaking at its best. Add to that a scene in which Pitt and DiCaprio sit in Dalton’s living room and watch the latest episode in which he appears and you have plenty of entertaining scenes to go around.
The friendship between Rick and Cliff is the centerpiece of the movie. Tarantino has had buddies in his films before—think Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction—but never before has he created such a genuine friendship between two characters. Even though Cliff technically works for Dalton and is essentially at his beck and call, driving him from home to meeting to set and fixing his television antenna when it needs it, it is clear that he does all these things not because he has to, but because he enjoys it. And it is also clear that Rick genuinely enjoys Cliff’s company.
This works largely because the chemistry between Pitt and DiCaprio is one of the biggest successes of the movie. You might think that two movie stars of their caliber—a caliber of movie star that hardly exists anymore—might react together like two opposing magnets, but in this movie, the opposite is true. It is fun simply to just watch these guys hang out together. Frankly, I could probably watch a full movie of Pitt and DiCaprio sitting around drinking beer and watching 1960s television like they do in one scene of this film. And let’s face it, they look pretty damn good walking into a bar together.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood took me to a place that I was half expecting, but still managed to surprise me with it when we got there. It is also the type of movie that would definitely benefit from multiple viewings, given the many layers within the film that you don’t necessarily realize are there until you can see the whole picture.
Tarantino also reminds us that he was creating an extended universe long before Nick Fury and Bruce Wayne tried to bring their teams together, referencing characters and brands like Red Apple Cigarettes throughout this film that were introduced to his movie universe more than twenty-five years ago. And Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is a worthy addition to that universe.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.