Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Margaret Qualley and Al Pacino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Once upon A Time In Hollywood premiered in Competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival
As he is usually wont to do, writer-director Quentin Tarantino throws the whole kitchen sink, and then some, at the task of conjuring up an era of American showbiz that might be difficult to recognize today but is still an alienable part of all that has gone into the creation of the Hollywood we know today. Campy and classy at once, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a delightfully delirious mix of fact and fiction that adds up to one hell of an ode to the schmaltzy TV westerns and B-movies of the late 1960s.
The film is long - it clocks in at two hours and forty-one minutes - and not everything that it throws at us is pitch-perfect, but bolstered by the dazzling skills of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two of the most charismatic male stars of our times, it is a wild, wacky movie-love melange informed with sly wit, whippy humour, and an infectiously cavalier spirit. Tarantino resorts to many an in-your-face sleight to heighten the film's casual air, which culminates in a staggeringly wicked, ultra-violent climax.
Embellished with a soundtrack that celebrates the sounds of the era and punctuated with TV and film footage to define a particularly exciting phase of American entertainment, Once Upon A Time In Hollywoodtransports the audience into a glittery bubble that is on the verge of bursting and under threat from the Manson cult that creeps in upon Cielo Drive, where one of the male protagonists lives when he isn't out looking for assignments that are fast drying up after a TV show is terminated without warning, leaving him in a despairing limbo.
The film takes a well-documented tragedy - the killing of pregnant actress Sharon Tate (who was weeks away from delivery) and four others in director Roman Polanski's Hollywood home on August 9, 1969 by the Manson family - and turns it on its head to not only capture the irrepressible spirit that has always kept the wheels of the US movie industry turning but also its unsettling dark side. There is a moment when one of the Manson girls, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who hitches a ride back to the commune in a ranch, offers a blow job to the driver. The latter turns down the suggestion because she cannot prove that she is 18. This is 'fiction' set 50 years ago, but the man's response is clearly post-Me Too.
The narrative, spread from February to August 1969, revolves around a hard-drinking television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is struggling to hold his own in an industry that has no patience for also-rans, and his infinitely more sorted stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and all-weather companion who has a murder accusation dangling over his head - it is alleged that he killed his wife and got away with the act, which he may or may not have actually committed. Rick drinks in order to tide over his frustrations; Cliff holds on to his savoir faire. The latter drives his boss around because Rick has lost the licence to drive.
Tarantino's mastery and the staggering skills of his two lead actors are manifested in the showpiece scenes that have been clearly designed to give DiCaprio and Pitt all the opportunity they need display to display their wares. They do, and how!
DiCaprio crowning moment in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood hinges on a scene that his character shoots for a TV series, Lancer, with an eight-year-old actress (Julia Butters), who is wise way beyond her years. Rick muffs up his lines the first time around and goes into a blue funk, which inevitably translates into a drinking binge. But he returns to set with renewed vigour and blows everyone away with an immaculate sequence. The child actor turns to him and says: "This is the greatest acting I've ever seen in my life." When it is Leo, it is easy to believe.
Brad Pitt has a couple of shots at glory and makes no mistakes. In one scene, Cliff, hired as a stuntman for The Green Hornet, has a friendly duel with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). The bust-up leaves a dent on the producer's car. In the next, he is out at a ranch that Tarantino reimagines as a location of many of the stunt double's films, and takes on the sinister Manson girls, including Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), who stonewalls him when he wants to meet the ranch owner and old buddy George (Bruce Dern). Cliff does reach the sleeping man. What transpires in the next few minutes is pure gold: Pitt, as coolly unflappable as ever, hits the ground running.
In the ensemble cast, Margot Robbie, playing Sharon Tate, also grabs her chances and demonstrates her range in imparting to the real-life actress an easy-going aura and a deep vulnerability.
Al Pacino is cast in a cameo as a talent agent who gives Rick a leg up in the industry. He ferrets out stray starring roles for the over-the-hill actor on television and suggests that he try his luck in Italian spaghetti westerns, where real-life director Sergio Corbucci gives him a role in Nebraska Jim opening new doors for him. Rick spends half a year in Rome and returns a few kilos fatter and with an Italian wife, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo).
A narrator, introduced earlier in film but only sparingly used, takes over completely as Tarantino proceeds to push the story along to a climax that, in the way in which it defies history and expectations, is reminiscent of the closing stretch of The Inglourious Basterds. It works because this is Hollywood of a time when it was as much a place as an idea and the focus of the film is on 'outsiders' who have enough distance from the core of the industry to do their own thing without being unduly worried about the consequences.
There aren't many American filmmakers around who can make the outrageous and the audacious so sweepingly attractive. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood isn't anything if not a magnificently magical throw of Tarantino's ever-quirky cinematic dice.