Tarantino’s Latest is a Joy Ride Through ‘Hollywood’
Have you ever just gone out for a drive? Maybe it is to clear your head or maybe you might hit up some old stops for nostalgia’s sake, but you are not really going anywhere in particular and you have no reason behind it. It is just you, the tunes on the radio, the wind in your hair, and the road, a journey for the journey’s sake. That is what Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood feels like.
Like the majority of his films, Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a casual trip with multiple stops along the way, where you meet a lot of memorable, over the top personalities who love to hear their own voices as they chew the scene and fill the air with idle chatter, talking to one another as much as they are talking to the audience, reminding us of cinematic history and pop culture nuggets. And there isn’t much of purpose apart from it being a celebration of character, cinema, and the very celluloid it was filmed on, and you have to truly be in it for the ride to really get your money’s worth.
Once Upon a Time … Hollywood is set in 1969, the year actress Sharon Tate (here come to life again with spellbinding charisma by way of Margot Robbie’s charming performance) was heinously killed by members of the Manson Family, the knowledge of which figures prominently in film. Haunting reminders of the event are placed throughout and the sight of Manson’s “sons and daughters,” starting in small doses with the flower children sometimes being as little as set dressing on the streets of Hollywood and building a stronger presence midway through, is enough to keep up a sense of danger. But the film is not about the event itself, but instead is an eccentric visit to the land of “Hollyweird.”
The main characters — not Tate, who plays a smaller role, although we do have the pleasure of watching The Wrecking Crew with her — are offbeat, tragically pathetic, and enjoyably goofy. Rick Dalton, played Leonardo DiCaprio, is a drunk, has-been actor struggling to keep up his star status in Hollywood. The former star of a popular western series Bounty Law, Dalton has spent the past few years playing the “heavy” (aka the big bad of the week) for various series, including The F.B.I., The Green Hornet, and Leave It to Beaver.
DiCaprio’s standout moments come on the set of another western show called Lancer, where he plays Dalton’s struggles with alcohol and personal insecurities with blunt realism as the character trips over his dialogue, succumbs to embarrassment, swears off alcohol forever, immediately takes another sip, screams at himself in the mirror and threatens his own reflection with suicide. Once Dalton delivers a performance to his liking, he gets high off the euphoria and self-congratulates himself as the director kisses his ass, and from there you can imagine this cycle is a daily occurrence for him on set, one that he may never pull away from. DiCaprio’s performance in these moments feel so tragically honest that you almost wonder if they are built from his own personal experiences. Or perhaps his performance in these scenes are so good that they only feel real. Either way, as a wise character states in the film, “an actor’s goal is to achieve 100% effectiveness,” and DiCaprio’s performance here is certainly effective to say the least.
Riding shotgun to DiCaprio is Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, Dalton’s go-to stunt double and full-time errand boy. Booth is more charismatic, slightly less of a drunk, at least not as embarrassingly so, but nowhere near as successful. While Booth chauffeurs Dalton around in a slick vehicle and often spends time in the actor’s comfortable abode, he leaves in a car that stalls and goes home to a trailer, which is parked next to a Drive-In. While Dalton mixes a drink from his own bar, Booth drinks cheap beer and eats Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Booth does everything for the self-absorbed actor, but rarely complains and does so willingly. He’s there for Dalton, as a stuntman, a friend, a hero, and more so, he’s always there with a smile despite little recognition or reward, which would make his dependable presence in the film endearing if it weren’t for the fact that he too is ridiculously pathetic. Early in the film, you learn that while drunk he accidentally killed his wife with a spear gun and got off scott free. Later, we see a flashback from his point of view, where according to him, get this, he bested Bruce Lee in a fight. (The scene itself and its depiction of Lee is a rather lewd, uncomfortable moment in an otherwise damn good film. Lee, however, does re-appear in a lovely, but all too brief flashback in which he trains Tate for her fight sequences in The Wrecking Crew.)
Charming as they might seem, the self-absorbed nature of Dalton and Booth and their accidentally noble role in the film are what best sells the weirdness of the town sometimes referred to as “Hollyweird.” This isn’t the story of stoic heroes who were there to do the right thing, but instead a couple of drunk and/or stoned Hollywood personalities, who, in this alternate reality at least, just happened to be at the right place at the right time, giving the audience a fun, somewhat cathartic and humorous finale in the process.
When I say it feels like you are going out for a drive, I literally mean it. In between the conversations, cultural tributes, reimagined history, and momentary spurts of graphic violence, there are a lot of scenes of characters doing nothing but driving around, listening to music, enjoying the sights of a bygone era. And while they themselves may have destinations and riders sitting shotgun, it more or less feels like you are the one sitting shotgun, bobbing your head to the radio grooves, falling in love with the neon lights and retro landscapes, stopping on the way to meet legends such as Steve McQueen and larger than life characters portrayed by Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, and Kurt Russell. Like I said, there isn’t much of a point in taking this trip, but boy does it feel good to go along for the ride.