Sunday, December 15, 2019

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood": review

[NB: mild spoilers, but the big twist at the end is not revealed.]

Described as a love letter to old Hollywood, 2019's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is directed by Quentin Tarantino and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a has-been actor and his faithful stuntman, respectively. The main strand of this movie's pleasantly meandering plot (if "plot" is even the right word) has to do with the fading relevance of TV and movie star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his friendship with stuntman/gopher Cliff Booth (Pitt). The men's relationship is the A story; the B and C stories have to do with actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the Manson Family. If you know your history, then you may recall that Sharon Tate, who had potential but wasn't known for having an impressive résumé, was murdered in 1969, along with her stylist friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and two others. Tate was eight months pregnant at the time of her murder; she was also married to scandal-prone director Roman Polanski, who was away at the time of her death. The movie takes us through several months of 1969, from February to August, right up to the night that members of the Manson Family (Charles Manson is portrayed in a cameo by Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in the American TV crime drama "Mindhunter") drive into the neighborhood where Tate and Polanski reside. The movie ends with a twist that puts us, as with "Inglourious Basterds," into alternate-timeline territory: it messes with history to give us a wish-fulfillment ending, something that Tarantino seems to be fond of, given the stories he created for "Django Unchained," "Inglourious Basterds," and "Death Proof."

And plot-wise, that's really all there is to say. If I were to describe this movie in terms of its cinematic elements, I might boil it down to vignettes and dialogue, which doesn't make it much different from Tarantino's other films, all of which are vignette- and dialogue-driven. While the characters in "Once Upon a Time" do physically move from place to place as a way to advance the plot, most of the movie's substance comes from the long exchanges we witness between characters. Al Pacino cameos as studio mogul Marvin Schwarzs (pronounce it "shworzz," not "shwartz"); he confronts Rick Dalton with the sad reality of the latter's fading career and offers him a chance at rejuvenation/redemption through spaghetti Westerns. The dialogue between Dalton and Schwarzs gives us a glimpse of the state of late-60s Hollywood: things are evolving, and you either change with the times, or you die. Dalton sits with prim, overly precocious child actress Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters; her character, like Jodie Foster, insists on calling herself an actor, not an actress) and tearfully reveals how miserable he is about his current lot in life. Dalton and his stuntman buddy Cliff also have plenty of hangout moments together during which they're just shootin' the shit. When Cliff is on Dalton's roof, repairing a blown-over antenna, he drifts into a reverie about an encounter with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, whose resemblance to Lee ends the moment he takes off his sunglasses) that went wrong when Cliff scoffs at Lee for claiming that Lee could cripple Muhammad Ali. Lee's inflated ego leads to a verbal exchange that turns into a "friendly" challenge to fight right there on the set; Cliff, a war vet who has actually killed people, gets the better of Lee, but the fight is cut short when Janet Miller (real-life Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell) storms onto the set and freaks out about her now-dented car, which was damaged when Cliff threw Lee into it. Cliff talks with a young, sexy-hippie hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who, it turns out, is part of the Manson Family, living on Spahn Ranch with the other Family members. Pussycat keeps trying to seduce Cliff into having sex, but Cliff is having none of it, and when he gets to Spahn Ranch, he becomes concerned that the Family is taking advantage of George Spahn (Bruce Dern), ancient and blind, and someone with whom Cliff had worked back in the day. When Cliff finally meets Spahn, though, the old man gruffly reassures Cliff that he's fine and not being taken advantage of.

Dialogues and vignettes. This is an actor's movie more than anything else; the only thing truly anchoring the plot is the mere passage of time. Much of the film takes place in February of 1969, then toward the end, we fast-forward to August. By that time, Rick Dalton has gotten married to an Italian hottie named Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo); he and Cliff return to America after having spent time in Italy filming spaghetti Westerns, and the movie at last comes into focus when those Manson Family members finally pull into the neighborhood where Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate live, right next door to Rick Dalton and his new bride.

The story contains many of the cast members and tropes we normally associate with Quentin Tarantino, but it's also something of a significant departure from your typical Tarantino film. While many reviewers have described this departure with words like "subtlety," I tend to think of it in negative terms: there's a general absence of the usual tension, and this absence can be felt both in the desultory banter of the main characters and the violent Manson Family encounter—mostly played for laughs—that dominates the final part of the film's third reel. That encounter could have been much tenser and scarier, but by the time we reach that point in the story, we've already come to understand that certain characters can handle themselves quite well in any crisis, even if they happen to be tripping on acid at the time. This knowledge undermines any attempt at creating tension, which is too bad, in my opinion, especially given how the Manson Family scene leads right into the twist that I won't be talking about—the twist that ends the movie and sends us spinning off into an alternate universe.

Overall, I liked "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." I agree with other critics that the film can be seen as a homage to or even a eulogy for old Hollywood. Tarantino has done an amazing job of evoking that era: the lights, the signage, the fashion, the cars, the attitudes... even the way Charles Manson walks, all dressed up in his bell-bottoms and sporting the big hair, feels authentically like a foretaste of the 1970s. Pitt and DiCaprio play their roles perfectly, although it's strange to see Brad Pitt playing second fiddle to anyone. I've never been the biggest fan of DiCaprio, mainly because I can't take him that seriously: he's always seemed way too shrimpy and baby-faced to play people of heft and significance. But somehow, in this film, he does a very convincing job of playing a middle-aged actor in crisis and looking for another chance. As a meditation on Hollywood, "Once Upon a Time" works well. The movie also works well as a showcase for Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie; Robbie's portrayal of Sharon Tate evokes a kind of bygone innocence that leaves the viewer nostalgic for a different era. There's something sweet and sad and naive about Robbie's version of Tate; we end up wishing her well, even though we know her real-life movie career didn't amount to much.

I wouldn't call "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" particularly riveting or thrilling; it's rather sedate and meandering, and in that sense, it represents a different direction for Tarantino. The film, with its pile of cameos from famous faces (Luke Perry makes his final appearance; Tarantino regular Michael Madsen gets a few seconds of screen time; Brenda Vaccaro is tucked in there somewhere; British actor Damian Lewis uncannily evokes Steve McQueen), sometimes feels more like a Robert Altman production than a Tarantino one. Still, the movie contains many Tarantino tropes and hallmarks, so while the ride may be new, there will be something familiar about it. Don't watch the film if you're tired at the end of a long day; it might bore you. But if you're awake and in the mood to see some fine acting, a competent evocation of 1969 Hollywood, and Tarantino's signature blending of bloody violence and comedy, then "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" will be right up your alley.

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