In an era where it’s increasingly rare to see original, director-driven movies make major impacts at the box office, it’s an absolute joy to have Quentin Tarantino back on the big screen. He’s one of the very few filmmakers – alongside probably only Christopher Nolan and now Jordan Peele – who can turn a movie into an event on his name alone, and what an event Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is. A magnificent spectacle of ‘60s Hollywood glamour and radiant star power, OUATIH finds Tarantino at, by turns, his most accessible and most gonzo, luring you in before delivering one of the wildest finales you’ll see this year.
Unhurriedly gliding through 1969 LA, OUATIH mainly follows the travails of fading TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/driver/only friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Around them, the star of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) rises, and the Manson family grows and grows, but, for the most part, Tarantino is content with this history forming a backdrop rather than driving the story. Both Rick and Cliff are disappointed in different ways with where their lives have landed as they enter middle age, which gives DiCaprio and Pitt a lot to play with.
It’s been a long time since we last saw DiCaprio on the big screen in his Oscar-winning role in The Revenant, and it’s great to have him back to his funny, charming best. He pinballs between melancholy and triumphant, often hilariously, and does a great job inhabiting all of Dalton’s characters, from punchy WW2 soldiers to snarling Wild West villains. In having to sell Rick as both a washed up idiot and a believable former superstar, DiCaprio has a tough task, and he’s more than up to it. As great as he is, though, OUATIH just about ends up as Pitt’s film (even if DiCaprio grabs top billing). It’s perhaps a career best performance, right up there with his towering turn as Jesse James and the brilliant silliness of Burn After Reading’s Chad Feldheimer.
He’s hysterically funny throughout and brings a tremendous physicality to the role, and Cliff’s slightly more contented view of life lets Pitt breathe just a little more than DiCaprio. Their energies complement each other perfectly and the two megastars share a hugely entertaining chemistry that makes every scene they share infectiously fun, amplifying each other’s star wattage without ever attempting to outshine one another. It makes the nearly 3 hour runtime in their company fly by, even when nothing much is happening plot-wise. At times, OUATIH feels almost like a collection of vignettes, all of which are so fun that my face hurt from constant grinning.
OUATIH is gentler than most Tarantino films (at least, until the last 20 minutes), so his trademark dialogue is slightly less acidly funny than you might be used to, but he makes up for this with tons of sincerity and heart. Every little excursion feels completely worthwhile, from Cliff dropping off Manson acolyte Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) at the eerie Spahn Movie Ranch and Rick’s day on the set of a new western, to Sharon Tate visiting the movies to see herself on the big screen. Their supporting cast is ridiculously impressive, including extended cameos for Al Pacino and Kurt Russell, as well as real breakout turns from Qualley and Julia Butters as a precocious child actor.
Los Angeles itself is wonderfully inviting, a town still full of fantastical mystery and dream-making, even as the fateful events of August 8 1969 loom ever closer. Graceful cinematography and editing keep the geography of every location crystal clear and pitch-perfect set design immerses you in the period entirely. A typically sublime soundtrack completes the illusion. Even if it didn’t really end up going anywhere, OUATIH would be a ride well worth taking for the atmosphere alone, evoking an idyllic lost era and populating it with flawed but massively likable characters.
Even better, then, that Tarantino does very much have a destination in mind. From the moment he announced he was setting a movie in 1969 LA, the internet has been abuzz about how he might handle the hideous Manson Family murders that marked that summer as the true end of the ‘60s. Suffice it to say, he does it in the most Tarantino way possible.
The last half an hour of the film walks a tonal tightrope so thin that only a true master of screenwriting and directing would even have a hope of pulling it off; threats, laughs, and ultraviolence colliding in a mindblowing ending. To say anything more about why it works as perfectly as it does would jump straight into spoiler territory, but the catharsis it offers is weapons-grade. It’s the perfect cap to what has previously been a loose film, snapping everything into place with sharp focus and high-wire bravery.
It’s fitting that in setting a film in one of Hollywood’s most fondly remembered eras, Tarantino should produce a movie that feels so of a piece with the classics of the late ‘60s. Star-driven, whip-smart, original, and very funny without being too self-aware, it’s also 100% Tarantino, albeit a more mature Tarantino than the one behind his other major crossover hits Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. OUATIH is a dazzling entry from one of America’s great filmmakers, standing almost side by side with his magnum opus Pulp Fiction, with a warmer heart than most of his work without ever losing his savage edge.