Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Technically speaking, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature is a historical movie, and he’s said it follows in that genre concept the same as his other so-called “revisionist” movies, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, did. The main and vital difference is that Tarantino was alive during the period that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes place, 1969, and while he was only six at the time, it’s obvious from his take on the setting and the milieu—in particular, the soundtrack, which is filled with AM radio hits of the era—that he remembers something of the texture of those times. For sure, Hollywood is deeply informed by the movies and TV shows of that era, but if feels a lot more relevant to Tarantino’s sensibility than the other two films of this ilk.

Still, as the title implies, it’s a fairy tale, and therein lies the rub. It’s hard not to wonder how much of what’s fabricated for the story adheres to Tarantino’s ideal of what the era represented. Despite the important plot line involving actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), this is definitely a man’s film, even a macho film, and it’s generally approving of the concept of manliness embodied by the two leads, troubled leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rick’s loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Though they’re too young to belong to the Greatest Generation, they don’t adhere to the hippie ethos that was ascendant at the time, and, obviously, neither does Tarantino. Though honorable men as far as that idea goes, Cliff is generally suspected of having murdered his wife (he was not convicted), and Tarantino is pretty coy about leaving his guilt a mystery. For sure, when the chips are down, he can be as violent as a pit bull (which he owns and which plays a very important part in the film), but true to Tarantino’s fantasy of manhood, his expression of violence is never gratuitous, though one can certainly say that Tarantino’s depiction of it is.

Hollywood is also Tarantino’s most structurally interesting film since Pulp Fiction, which is saying a lot since Tarantino plays with structure as if he were in Legoland. In the first part of the film, Rick, who starred in a Western TV series in the late 50s for two seasons, has seen his star descend to the point where, as one agent (Al Pacino in Jewish drag) puts it, he’s now continually getting cast as guest villains in other people’s series, a sure sign that he’s washed up. Nevertheless, he still lives in relative luxury in the Hollywood Hills, with Tate and her new husband, Roman Polanski, fresh from his victory with Rosemary’s Baby, having just rented the house next door. Cliff, on the other hand, still lives in a trailer down below, and his subservient position vis-a-vis Rick belies his own self-possession, which, in Pitt’s hands, is pure aesthetic. Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Tarantino in this formulation of male bonding is that DiCaprio is too earnest in his stylization of male self-pity while Pitt was born to play the cool, unruffled, and totally competent sidekick. You bathe in Cliff’s scenes while you often squirm during Rick’s.

Of course, everybody is primed to expect something apocalyptic because of the Tate subtext, though Tarantino is just as coy with the presentation. In the movie’s best sustained segment, Cliff gives some jailbait a ride to the house where she and a tribe of hippies are squatting. It turns out to be an old movie set that Cliff once worked at, and he hears of a guy named Manson who seems to have some control over these freaks. The segment is tense and open-ended—there’s really no telling what is going to happen—and it sets the audience up in ways that are purposely perplexing, and as long as you buy into the fairy tale premise what develops makes not only perfect sense, but can be taken as being highly satisfying in the Hollywood tradition. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the epitome of the guilty pleasure in that it confounds our expectations with a false sense of security. Agree with it or not, it obviously represents the world as Quentin Tarantion believes it should be.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Visiona Romantica Inc.

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