Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

I’ve reviewed most of Tarantino’s films at this point, and it is clear to say that I’m a fan. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019) has been one of my most anticipated films of the summer, so I couldn’t wait to catch it at my local theater’s oddly timed 4:00 p.m. Thursday screening. For Tarantino fans, the film will deliver most of his normal elements – but I did find the plot to be a little bloated, and it leads to him needing narration to power through the third and final act. The performances and twisted humor associated with Tarantino’s films still works overall. 

Tarantino movies aren’t for everyone, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood mostly worked for me.

Set in Hollywood during 1969, Once Upon a Time follows Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is the stuntman, assistant, and friend of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rick’s career is slowing – down and subsequently, so is Cliff’s stunt work. Rick is desperately clinging to his career and is excited when Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), move into the house next door. Rick is working on a pilot episode of a new show, and Cliff is picking up hitchhiking hippies in the meantime. 

Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Al Pacino in Columbia Pictures ???Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Truthfully, the plot isn’t really that important in this film. The moments that we spend with Rick and Cliff are simply to introduce these fictional figures – who are supposedly based on some real people – amongst some Hollywood icons, and Tarantino shooting what could be argued as his third western. Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is seen in the trailer, and the scene with him and Cliff is probably the best in the film. It’s in a flashback sequence where we learn much more about Cliff’s past, and the main reason he isn’t able to work on the set of the new show Rick is working on. 

I am a big fan of the story in films, and the structure in which the writer reveals them often makes or breaks a film for me. Tarantino usually is a master of storytelling and has managed to find innovative ways of doing so in the past. This film is uncharacteristic in that way, as the first two-thirds are very disconnected at times to what the ending will be. Cliff’s encounter with the hippies could be significant to the story, but it really isn’t. Rick’s temperament becomes a catalyst for some choices made at the end. The fairy tale elements and choices aren’t lost on me, but there are several scenes in the first two acts spent with Sharon Tate that feel unnecessary to the bigger picture of what’s happening. They aren’t bad scenes, but they just pad out the run time more than they add anything to the story being told. 

While I had a few complaints about the story overall, the performances did more than enough to win me over. DiCaprio and Pitt are in top form, and I love every minute we get to spend with them. DiCaprio does some amazing crying in this movie. While the two leads are phenomenal, the supporting cast also does great work. Robbie is solid as Sharon Tate. Moh has Bruce Lee down pat. Not to mention Emile Hirsch, Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Luke Perry, and many others all get moments in the film that pay-off in some way. I really enjoyed the scene where DiCaprio meets the young girl (Julia Butters) working on the show, and they sit and talk to one another about their books. It’s a great scene, and the young actress shines – even against DiCaprio. 

Final thoughts…

I’ll probably catch Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood in the theater again. I like to revisit Tarantino films, and sometimes what he’s doing will click with me more the second time around. There is a good chance I need to dive into some older films to also get all the references he is likely paying homage to as is his M.O. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.

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