“Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” Review

Photo credit: Sony

[Hello! Quick note: This review is spoiler-free as always, but I would highly recommend watching this movie with at least a surface level knowledge of Sharon Tate and the Manson murders. My review follows.]

Quentin Tarantino’s movies have always existed for one main purpose: being cool. Which is great! His movies are enlaced with a stylish fervor that is impossible to look away from, resulting in crowd-pleasing entertainment that is unparalleled in its ability to swoop audiences off their feet — almost as if he’s challenging you not to endlessly rewatch and overanalyze his work. But I’ve always felt that for an auteur with such a strong grasp on filmmaking, Tarantino isn’t aiming high enough in his ambitions. That’s not to say he plays it safe; he still takes more artistic risks with each movie than most directors take in their lifetime. I’ve just always wished for a Tarantino movie that’s as layered as it is stylish, because he usually feels like a virtuoso pianist playing music far below his skill level, yet he manages to play with such grace and improvisation that his performances can pass as high art.

But fear not: I think Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is that movie I’ve been looking for.

As much as I like this movie, I wouldn’t recommend it to any Tarantino fan (or anybody, really) without a big ol’ disclaimer that emphasizes that it won’t click for everybody. Structurally, the movie almost feels like an elaborate prank that’s only revealed to be a magic trick once the credits roll. Why does Margot Robbie have very little dialogue? Why aren’t Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio sharing more scenes together? Is this going anywhere? The movie willingly provokes you to ask these questions during its runtime because Once Upon a Time’s greatest strength is its ability to not only predict audience expectations, but actively play into them. Part of the fun is trying to put the pieces together and figure out what it all means, especially once you arrive to a finale that simultaneously offers a clear sense of clarity while also leaving you totally baffled (I desperately want to write more about the ending but I can’t without getting into spoilers, so all I’ll say is that it’s a doozy). I also firmly believe that while this movie can technically work at a shorter runtime, it would be far less effective and the ending wouldn’t nearly have the same impact if it had one. Lots of Tarantino fans are also going to be thrown off by the movie’s tone, which nearly reaches Jackie Brown levels of reserved violence and mundane conversations. Sure, you still get flashes of that signature Tarantino flair along the way when actors go back-and-forth in a long scene, but this feels like his most subdued and mature movie in the best way possible.

This maturity stems from the two central characters — and their respective performances — at the heart of this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s chemistry is what drives everything forward, as you fully buy into their characters’ friendship that honestly feels…heartwarming? There are no big revelations here because it’s not like DiCaprio or Pitt need to prove themselves as actors, but they show that they’re still as charismatic and funny as ever. It honestly feels like a crime how much DiCaprio’s comedy chops have been underutilized in his career, and it’s just so much fun to see him get to go all out here. But both their characters are so shockingly empathetic and realistic for a Tarantino movie that it provides a level of emotional resonance into the story that really benefits it overall.

But first and foremost, this movie is a love letter to a bygone era of Hollywood. Everything from the clothing to the production design to the music just oozes the time period, and at times it can feel hypnotic to watch. And the amount of footage they created from fake 1950 TV shows is honestly kind of incredible. Most of the movie’s style comes from capturing the atmosphere of this time-period as opposed to flashy monologues, but I think it would be hard for Tarantino to write dialogue that compares to this recreation of 1969 Hollywood.

I started this review the second I got home from a late showing. I easily could have waited to write this after sleeping on the movie, but Once Upon a Time is so destined to absorb my thoughts and demand repeat viewings before I fully sort out my opinion that I feel like any commentary I put out there is subject to change, so I might as well give you my energetic (and somewhat incoherent) thoughts fresh out of the theater. Maybe I’ll watch this movie again and think it’s overlong and muddled. Maybe I’ll watch this movie again and think it’s better than Inglorious Basterds (an admittedly improbable feat). But as of right now? As I finish this review at 4:00am after getting out of the theater a mere three hours ago? Color me impressed. Color me very, very impressed.

“Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is Ben Watches Things Approved

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