Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood: Movie Review

by Justin Luteran

Bottom line: In typical Tarantino fashion. it’s extravagantly crafted and overlong, and falls squarely in the middle of the pack of his nine films to-date. 

Quentin Tarantino fans have come to expect certain things when they turn up at the theater to see his latest creations. They can expect a movie that is lavishly fashioned, with sets and costumes and characters as impressive and unique as the director himself. They can expect formidable scenes of dialogue and interplay between characters, sometimes going on upwards of half an hour or more. They can expect wonderful eruptions of no-holds-barred violence, delightfully graphic shootouts, and enough fake blood to sink a ship. And they can expect the movie to feel forty-five minutes too long.

On those particular notes, QT once again (mostly) delivers. Once Upon…is his most personal movie to-date; a tribute to the world and industry of late ’60s/early ’70s Hollywood that he grew up in. The story follows fading TV Western star Rick Dalton, played with surprising authenticity by last-remaining-true-movie-star Leonardo DiCaprio, and his loyal stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Hawaiian-shirt wearing Brad Pitt (whose character may have killed his wife), as the two try to desperately cling to the fame and success that is rapidly leaving them. Margot Robbie also stars as young actress Sharon Tate, infamously murdered by the Manson family while filmmaker husband Roman Polanski was in Europe shooting a movie, though she has surprising little to do in the film other than look glamorous and embody the youthful hope of an emerging screen talent.

Movie and TV lovers should enjoy plenty of behind-the-scenes, show-within-a-show fun that Once Upon provides. Seeing Leo’s mustachioed character go back to his trailer and psyche himself out for forgetting his lines in front of the cast and crew is both hilarious and surreal. QT diehards will also be pleasantly surprised by several subtle easter eggs and actor cameos.

One of the real breakouts of the film is ten-year-old Julia Butters who shares several key scenes with Leo’s character on a TV Western and more than holds her own against the veteran actor.

Production Designer Barbara Ling fantastically recreates Hollywood of 50 years ago, using some locations that still exist like the iconic Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd and others that don’t like the Van Nuys drive-in or backlot-turned-Manson-hangout Spahn Ranch. Similar to Tarantino’s other films, he is able to create a world that is so rich and so vivid that it almost feels like a fantasy even though it is all based on real places. One difference with Once Upon…is the noted lack of violence for a Tarantino film. Don’t get me wrong, there is still enough for any viewer to have their fill, particularly in one fantastic sequence towards the end, but this film is much more talking and driving and embodying the free love and hippie spirit of the summer of ’69, despite many characters including Rick Dalton being distinct hippie-haters. 

At two hours and forty-one minutes, and with its slower pace, the movie can drag at certain parts, most notably Brad Pitt’s detour to Spahn Ranch with a young female hitchhiker, but the film more than makes up for it with a spectacular final thirty minutes that is both delightfully fun and provides a shocking twist on the Manson Family Murders.

It’s hard to place this film above the likes of his other recent, long and Western-themed films like Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, but Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood again finds Quentin Tarantino doing exactly what fans have come to expect from him and with the fun, original premise and unique star power, perhaps a bit more. 

Make sure to stick around for an end credits sequence that Tarantino lovers will be sure to get a kick out of.

Production companies: Heyday Films, Columbia Pictures, Bona Film Group Co.

Distributor: Sony/Columbia

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha

Director-screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

Producers: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino

Executive producers: Georgia Kacandes, Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan

Director of photography: Robert Richardson

Production designer: Barbara Ling

Costume designer: Arianne Phillips

Editor: Fred Raskin

Visual effects designer: John Dykstra

Casting: Victoria Thomas

Rated R, 159 minutes