Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Film Review

I generally try to keep my reviews spoiler-free but that is impossible to do for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because so much of my opinion hinges on the ending. I won’t be going into too much detail, but consider yourself warned: SPOILERS.

The film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading TV star who is washed up, insecure about his career and a major alcoholic. He’s only able to book guest slots on TV shows and is dependant on his longtime friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who primarily acts as his driver and general dogsbody.

The characters are fictional but are surrounded by real ones, such as Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). In fact, Dalton is neighbours with the latter two. The film is set at the same time as real events – the brutal murder of Tate and four others at the hands of Charles Manson’s followers at her home in August 1969.

There was some controversy when it was announced Quentin Tarantino would be making a film about Tate’s murder. I went in fully expecting – although dreading – to see the pregnant Tate get killed, but the film rewrites history and that doesn’t happen. I won’t go into detail but it’s hilarious, wild, super violent and goes out with a very Tarantino-style bang.

But that made me feel conflicted. I’m certainly relieved it didn’t show real events but it left me wondering what was the point of having Tate in it in the first place? She didn’t need to be there – the fictional story worked well on its own and that angle was unnecessary. Also, Robbie is given hardly any lines and didn’t have any impact on the plot at all. She mainly walks around with a big smile on her face, basking in the glow of the LA sun and being generally lovely to everyone. I appreciate that she was a symbol of the Golden Age of Hollywood and representative of a more hopeful time, but give the woman more lines and make her a proper character!

I would have preferred it if the film literally just focused on the fictional Cliff and Rick story. It could have borrowed heavily from real events without explicitly referencing them. Besides the use of Tate and Polanski, I was also slightly uncomfortable at the introduction to Bruce Lee. It’s funny but at Lee’s expense and totally unnecessary. He’s made into a caricature and that doesn’t feel right.

Excluding those major issues, I liked Once Upon a Time In Hollywood a lot. I love most of Tarantino’s work, I love movies about filmmaking and Hollywood and it brought me so much joy seeing DiCaprio and Pitt onscreen together. Their friendship was well written and just bloody lovely.

DiCaprio never disappoints and he is simply fantastic here. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, his character is messed up and he’s so good at portraying a barely functioning alcoholic. Pitt hasn’t been this good in a long time and his performance is also excellent. His storyline isn’t as exciting as DiCaprio’s but he gets ample room to shine towards the end. Robbie looked the part and shone every time she was onscreen, but she wasn’t well developed. There are SO many famous faces in this in small roles, from Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham, and Luke Perry (RIP). Austin Butler was suitably creepy as family member Tex Watson, while Dakota Fanning and Margaret Qualley stood out as cult members.

The movie has a hefty runtime of two hours and 45 minutes but it doesn’t feel quite that long, although there are some pacing issues, some “TV footage” goes on too long, and it does start to sag in the middle. But it’s worth the wait, as the climax is shocking, entertaining and gloriously bloody.

There is a lot to process and unpack so I had to work out what I liked – the lead actors, the humour and the period setting – and what I didn’t – the unnecessary Tate murder angle – before starting this review. Some have called it Tarantino’s best work but I wouldn’t go that far, though it’s still very funny and very good. I believe I’d appreciate it more on a second watch when I could take it for what it is rather than what I thought it was going to be.

In cinemas from Wednesday 14th August 

Rating: 4/5

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