By Jason Guyer
There are three important parts to a film. Any one can make or break a film: directing, acting and writing. There are very few times a film hits on all three and when a film does, those are called masterpieces.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the new Quentin Tarantino film, comes close to masterpiece level on all three.
Writer/director Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” his ninth film, visits 1969 Los Angeles.
The changing landscape of Hollywood finds TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) trying to stay in an industry they no longer recognize.
The film’s large ensemble cast and multiple storylines showcase the ability of the two lead actors, DiCaprio and Pitt.
As director, Tarantino has fun with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” He creates 1969 Los Angeles all over again.
Inside the film itself, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” contains many infomercials or snippets of television episodes that bring on 1969 nostalgia. The best part of each infomercial or television snippet is that they feel like real infomercials or snippets and each type is acted by Leonardo DiCaprio. Tarantino uses each to showcase and have fun with DiCaprio’s acting ability and his own directing ability, all while keeping the flow of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
The only real mistake by Tarantino in the film is he does this one too many times and it leads the film to be long. The two hour and 40 minute runtime is no joke and does not contain the attention-holding action of something like a three hour “Avengers” film.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is about nuance. The film is a filmmaker’s film and you have to fully appreciate those nuances to not feel bored after a while, at least intermittently.
The nuances that are the best to watch in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” are those of the two lead actors. Leonardo DiCaprio gets to stretch what are already fine tuned acting chops. Dalton’s character was written to represent and exemplify certain often true tropes about this era of Hollywood and Hollywood stars.
DiCaprio shines as Rick Dalton. The highlights of DiCaprio’s performance are the ups and downs of Dalton, who is a drunk and a failing Hollywood star. The highs and lows create some extremes for the character.
Then there are the times when DiCaprio’s Dalton is acting out a character. These scenes are the best Dalton scenes in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” It becomes fun to watch DiCaprio playing a character inside playing another character. The nuance behind such acting is wonderful.
This is exemplified in the standoff scene, a standoff scene opposite the wonderful Luke Perry. This scene is classic Luke Perry and befitting of some of his last scenes of the film due to his unfortunate death.
Those standoff scenes capture the last acting gasp of the Rick Dalton character and his want or need to be great at his craft, even if the industry no longer wants him to be great.
If Dicaprio is the cake or body of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Pitt is the icing. Pitt rarely gets the credit he deserves as a character actor, even though he has created some of the best characters in film history.
Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Raine from Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” is an iconic character.
Then there is my personal favorite Pitt performance as Mickey O’Neil in Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch.”
There is no better character from Pitt’s litany of characters than the fast-talking and hard-hitting gypsy Mickey O’Neil. In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Pitt plays Cliff Booth, the Sancho Panza to DiCaprio’s Don Quixote.
In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” when the story is not centered on DiCaprio’s Dalton it is centered on Pitt’s Booth.
The character of Cliff Booth is multilayered.
Booth is a once-famed stuntman whose career has been locked to Dalton’s and both are now on their way out in Hollywood.
The problem is both the lead characters in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” bring about their downfall in completely different ways but in lock step with one another.
Dalton has a drinking problem and Booth has killed his wife. Both scenarios have obviously had a negative effect on their careers.
Pitt’s brilliance as Booth is also imbedded in nuance. Booth is the typical male of the 60s and 70s era United States. If a viewer had a picture in their head of a male in 1969 in the United States, there is a fair bet that Cliff Booth is that picture.
Stoically loyal are two words that would describe Pitt’s Booth and yet, when the character looks to be heard then he is heard loud and clear. Pitt’s best scene as Cliff Booth is the Bruce Lee scene.
The scene has Pitt’s Booth as the old guard stuntman clamoring to be on a film set and when he finally does he is on set with a boasting Bruce Lee. Lee states his hands are registered lethal weapons and he can’t fight because if he accidentally killed someone he would go to jail.
Booth points out the absurdity of that statement and says if anyone killed anyone accidentally in a fight they would go to jail, it is called manslaughter.
This verbal altercation leads to a physical one. This leads to Booth’s ultimate demise in the stunt world in Hollywood, or at least in Los Angeles. The characters of Dalton and Booth after failing out of Hollywood and coming to terms with their career collide with a real life historical event: The Manson murders. Although, if you are expecting some in depth or exceptional take on the Manson murders, don’t.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” only parallels the Manson murders and only brushes the surface. Charles Manson is only seen once and the Manson group gets more screen time, especially Squeaky Fromme who is played by Dakota Fanning.
Then there is the fact that the entire Manson murders gets the Tarantino treatment, the completely fictional Tarantino treatment. The entirely fictional ending may not be for everyone.
Revisionist history is a real problem in 2019, especially in the historical sense but remember, this is a movie.
In art there are almost no boundaries, and in film there are no constraints on a fictional film.
The ending in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” may not be true but one thing is true, Tarantino is an adroit filmmaker and whose work is always a pleasure to watch.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” may not be a cinema masterpiece (runtime among a few other small things) but the directing, acting and writing are all masterful.
Plus, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is wonderfully Tarantino, especially the ending.
Tarantino always delivers, especially in ways only Tarantino can and I can’t wait to see his next project, a “Star Trek” film.
IRATE SCORE: 4/5
Jason Guyer is an avid moviegoer who works in the graphics department at the Eagle Times. For questions or comments he can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org