Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review: Tarantino springs another surprise

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
This feels like a Quentin Tarantino film for about 10 minutes. But those 10 minutes constitute, without a doubt, the most stupendously provocative cinema you are likely to see all year. Tarantino delivers an astounding denouement in his inimitable soft-rock-purring, blood-splashing postmodernist shtick that also sees Brad Pitt pull off the greatest drunken laugh in the history of Hollywood. It’s maddening, bewildering, dazzling all at once.

In other parts, this is an anti-Tarantino film steered by an anti-hero, Rick Dalton, essayed immaculately by Leonardo DiCaprio. Set in 1969, with the golden age of Hollywood drawing to its inevitable end, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the story of Dalton, a once-famous but now over-the-hill television actor, and his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by a devastatingly dashing Pitt who is also the former’s one-man entourage. Puzzlingly, he no longer performs stunts for Dalton, but the two are inseparable nonetheless. Their lives play out in the backdrop of the rise of the Manson cult, a cartoonish depiction of an otherwise feral gang that gained notoriety for committing a series of murders in California around the time.

On the face of it, this always looked like a non-standard Tarantino film, but the surprises actually surprise you more than you expect them to. The most startling change is the pace, as laborious and painful as Dalton’s stuttering career. It’s magnificently shot, of course, with a sun-kissed Los Angeles acting as the ideal muse for the laidback vibe that Tarantino is out to showcase. The lack of pace is somewhat compensated for by Tarantino’s neurotic obsession with pop culture detail.

While Dalton and Booth are Tarantino’s own creations, the other narrative in The Wrecking Crew at the local theatre, blushing as the audience applauds. Tarantino is evidently sympathetic to Tate, painting a lovable actor who deserved better. The same cannot be said about his depiction of Bruce Lee, a repellently buffoonish part that sees the martial arts icon get clobbered by Booth in a rather needless physical confrontation. Lee’s family has every right to feel aggrieved at this monstrosity.

As Dalton’s career continues to nosedive, his agent, Marvin Schwarz (a thoroughly enjoyable cameo by Al Pacino), suggests he consider trying his luck in spaghetti Westerns. Around the same time, Tate moves in next door with her husband, Roman Polanski (the greatest filmmaker in the world, according to Dalton), and the struggling actor is convinced that things may be looking up after all.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
This film is as much about the end of eras as it is about Tarantino’s personal fixations. Dalton’s character in Inglourious Basterds.

Which isn’t to say this isn’t fun. The Dalton-Booth bromance is funny and relatable. Dalton, in fact, may just be one of Tarantino’s best creations; he seems washed-up without ever coming across as entirely miserable, and offers some genuine gags. Pitt as Booth, on the other hand, channels his inner Rusty Ryan from Ocean’s Eleven, a picture of constant casual calm. (Oh, and if you’re a fan of triple alliterations like me, then DiCaprio has a surprise for you.)

And then there’s the humour. Whether it was the bag head scene featuring Jonah Hill in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has always had the ability to make his audience laugh in the unlikeliest of situations. The dark humour trope makes an appearance here, too, with Tarantino managing to induce laughs in between wholesale carnage.  

Amid all this, some of Tarantino’s excesses are also on display: the film could have been much shorter, and the burst of trademark grisly violence at the end — although rip-roaringly good — seems slightly forced given the film’s tardy flow and overall gentle character. Chances are that a lot of fans — diehard Tarantino ones included — are likely to come out of this one deeply divided. You will no doubt be sucked out of your seat by its sheer bizarreness and filmmaking virtuosity, but also be slightly perturbed by the fact that Tarantino has used such a grim context to highlight and, in some ways, celebrate such a momentous era in Hollywood.  

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