MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: O
Reel Rating, 3 out of 5 reels
(Disclaimer: Major spoilers ahead.)
It is rather rare that a movie is promoted for its director rather than its stars—especially when the stars involved are A-list actors. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is billed as the ninth film by director Quentin Tarantino, whose every film is a mini-event in the cinematic world. Famously a video rental store clerk turned superstar filmmaker, Tarantino makes pictures that frequently reference the masterpieces of the past. And so a movie set in the glory days of the studio system was probably inevitable. It has everything a former film student like myself loves in a movie: frequent cameos, obscure references to lingo of the trade, shout-outs to events of eras past, and the simple joy in the art form. But, as evident by John Mulderig’s review for the USCCB (“It … appeals to viewers’ worst instincts…”), it is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a veteran Western actor nearing the sunset of his career in 1969. While still making enough to live in mansion on Cielo Drive, he has been taking smaller and smaller parts for years and finds himself dreading the future. His only friend is former stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is only too happy living in a trailer behind a drive-in theater and helping Rick with his daily tasks, especially acting as his impromptu chaffer after a string of DUIs. While attempting to salvage his career, Rick’s life becomes intertwined with the new neighbors next door, director Roman Polaski and his wife, the actress, Sharon Tate, as well as a strange group of hippies living in the desert where he used to film a television show.
If you know anything about Hollywood history, you can see where this is going.
Setting aside for a moment anything about the story, plot, or moral implications of Tarantino’s fetish for obscene violence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a gorgeous film to experience. It has some of the best atmospheric elements of any film I’ve seen in the last ten years. The cinematography, music, clothing, art design, and simple mannerisms of the performers drips with the culture of late 1960s Los Angeles, when everyone smoked, neon lit up restaurants, miniskirts were hip, and you never know when a celebrity would walk by you in the streets. The film is over two-and-a-half hours long and takes its sweet time, lingering lovingly over finned cars and fringe jackets.
Again, for a film geek like me, it is better than catnip, but anyone with nostalgia for the era will enjoy the craftsmanship involved. My personal favorite homage is a fight scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet. Peppered with humor, great dialogue, and silly action, it does not end the way one might think.
Yet beneath the glitz and glamour, there is trouble brewing. Perhaps no one summarized the era better when the British historian Paul Johnson called 1968 “America’s suicide attempt.” Many young people, embracing the sexual revolution and counter cultural movements, turned their backs on traditional beliefs and mores in a vain and often destructive attempt to find meaning. Charles Manson manipulated such impulses to create a violent, sex-driven cult, culminating in the infamous murder of Tate when she was in her eighth month of pregnancy.
Tarantino acknowledges that these cultural changes killed off his beloved golden age of cinema and more than a little of what made America a real, if flawed, moral superpower on the world stage. But he is not willing to admit how that “innocent time” was itself deeply tainted. So, for example, the films shows Polanski and Tate visiting the Playboy mansion, which seems fun and cheeky, but is actually a hotbed for infidelity and sexual assault. Rick himself is an obvious alcoholic, but Cliff makes no attempt to help him with his addiction.
The last scene is the most controversial, but given Tarantino’s love for revisionist history, it should not be too surprising. Until the end, Hollywood was almost a PG-13 movie. Sure, there was lots of swearing and smoking, but no sex or violence whatsoever. The film ends on the night of Sharon Tate’s murder, but this time the Mason clan shows up at Rick’s house. In the ten minutes that follow, Rick and Cliff kill the amateur murderers in the most tortuous, horrific ways possible including (but not limited to) repeated head slamming, knife stabbing, castration, drowning, and being burned alive with a World War II flame thrower.
The violence is hyperbolic and cartoonish, obviously intended to be cathartic. Yet simply the imagery itself is enough to be morally debase. Yes, they are villains to be punished, but they are still real people—brain-washed cult members barely out of their teens.
Until this radical 180 degree turn, the film is immensely enjoyable. DeCaprio and Pitt have never been better, and their onscreen friendship is genuinely heartwarming. Tarantino’s attempt to save Hollywood from one of its worst chapters is understandable—but not at the expense of such extreme assaults on decency. As a piece of entertainment, Hollywood succeeds wildly, but there isn’t any real or good lesson to be learned.
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