Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood Is Fun Winding Ride

If you were to take all of Quentin Tarantino’s myriad references — the classic deep-cut rock tunes, the vintage TV shows, the Dirty Dozen-style movies, Spaghetti Westerns, grindhouse cinema, martial arts flicks, dark humor, and, of course, women’s feet — you get Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. It’s Tarantino’s love letter to L.A. and 1960s Hollywood and all that makes him the artist that he is. And it’s a great, if not an oftentimes meandering, ride. 

But meandering is probably the wrong word. 

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is a movie that definitely takes you somewhere — it just takes its time getting there. This Tarantino film, more than most, is about the journey more than the destination. And, much like Jackie Brown — Tarantino’s third movie and a masterpiece in its own right — it leans heavy on an amalgam of interesting hapless low-rent characters you can’t help like and root for. And, like Jackie Brown, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is a film you’ll need to see again and again to truly grasp how good of a movie it really is. 

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood thrives on the edge of old movie and TV references while giving you delicious morsels of great performances from its cast, humorous moments, slow ominous foreshadowing and, yes, women’s feet. The movie centers around three central characters: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and their lives in and out of the film-making industry in 1969. A fourth character, haunting the movie with an ethereal creepiness, is the Manson family. One can say a fifth character is old Los Angeles itself — beautifully shot and reimagined in all its neon-polished 1960s glory.

Dalton is a down-on-his-luck actor who used to be the leading man on a hit Western TV show and starred in an Inglorious Basterds-like movie where he blow torches a bunch of Nazis (which is as fucking cool as is sounds). Now, as his career begins to wind down and with his show canceled, Dalton finds himself forced to take bit parts as the bad guy in other TV shows like FBI. Booth, meanwhile, is Dalton’s best friend, hype man, and stunt double who works mostly as his personal assistant and driver. He also has a shady past (turns out Booth may or may not have murdered his pain-in-the-ass wife). And Tate is, well, Tate — a gorgeous up-and-coming actress married to the hottest director in town, Roman Polanksi, starring in movies with Dean Martin and going to parties at the Playboy Mansion with Steve McQueen (portrayed by Billions’ Damian Lewis, who is a dead ringer for the acting legend), and other Hollywood luminaries. Tate also happens to be Dalton’s next door neighbor on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon in L.A. (Manson Murder aficionados will no doubt recognize that fateful street). The juxtaposition between Dalton and Tate is obvious — one is climbing the ladder of stardom, while the other is seeing his star fading hard and fast. Booth, an aging stunt man with incredible old man strength who lives in a trailer with his dog, meanwhile, is just happy to be here. And in the midst of it all is an unsettling Charles Manson and his band of young, mostly female, cult followers living on a former movie-set ranch and being super weird and creepy and murdery. 

But to be sure, this movie is not about that. The Manson Murders merely acts as a means to an end in a way. And that seems to have thrown off some moviegoers a bit — if not frustrated some outright. Which is quintessential Quentin, really. 

Like most people, when I first heard Tarantino was making a movie that dealt with the Manson Murders, my initial instinct was to cringe a little. Anyone familiar with the Tate/Bianca murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and his deranged followers in August of 1969, knows it was a gruesome, terrifying act of pure evil. And that subject matter in the hands of a director that loves to play in the ultraviolent world of people getting shot in the face, people being shot in the dick, people puking buckets of blood, people being anally raped by leather-clad gimps, and people having their ears severed off to the tune of Stealers Wheels’ Stuck In the Middle With You can be dicey, at best. Especially when you consider the utter heinousness of the Manson Murders. But then you remember that Tarantino’s greatest knack (aside from slipping in a shot of a woman’s feet without you seemingly noticing) is to tell stories in a way that the viewer doesn’t see coming, and that’s when you begin to see where this movie is taking you. It’s why we love Quentin Tarantino so much. It’s why Pulp Fiction was an instant classic. It’s why Inglorious Basterds is a goddamn masterpiece. 

Here’s all you need to know about how the Manson Murders plays into Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino loves the movies, he loves the sheer beauty of 1960s cinema and Hollywood and he — like the rest of us — is very pissed off that Charles Manson and his brood of murderous dirty hippie weirdos barged their way into that world and not only put an end to all that beauty, but left a permanent stain on the culture and the American psyche in the process. And the way he deals with this seminal moment in Hollywood history is pure Quentin Tarantino. 

But the highlight of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood are its characters. DiCaprio is absolutely brilliant as Dalton, struggling with facing his new reality and trying desperately to keep a very slippery grip on a once shining career. DiCaprio has a blast playing this character and it comes through. Pitt, meanwhile, channels a little of The Dude from The Big Lebowski — a breezy Angelino who smokes acid-dipped cigarettes, pals around with his loyal pitbull and takes things as they come while reminiscing about the time he had a fight with Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet. Robbie, meanwhile, is amazing as Tate. A lot has been made about her not getting enough lines in this movie, but once you see her performance you see that less is indeed more (the scene where she goes into an L.A. theater and watches one of her movies and takes in the audiences’ reaction to her scenes is just great film making). 

Following the immensely disappointing and self-indulgent The Hateful Eight, and the tragic death of Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, I was worried QT had begun to lose his touch. But with Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, my faith has been restored. 

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is a fun winding ride. It hits most of the Tarantino sweet spots: It’s funny, it’s irreverent, it’s violent, it’s nostalgic, it’s stylized and it’s cool. And it’s going to be a movie that, in ten years or so, will be considered one of his best.

Chris Joseph (@ByChrisJoseph) is a host of Ballscast, and has written about sports and movies for Deadspin, Miami New Times, CBS Sports, and several other outlets.

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