Last October, I wrote about Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, his second film in the director’s chair. In it, I explain how the film has Quentin Tarantino’s DNA all over it, with some of the less ideal qualities removed.. Most notably, Goddard’s script does not rely on using the n-word to portray the racism of the 1960s, and, overall, the film does not feel nearly as misanthropic as Tarantino’s films do. In the end, I recommend the film as an easier to digest, albeit less-well executed, Tarantino film.
Wouldn’t you know it, 9 months later, Tarantino’s ninth film, the similarly 1960s-set Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, would end up being one of his most hopeful works yet. This isn’t to say the film is totally devoid of some of the issues I typically have with Tarantino’s work. It is implied that one of the main characters almost certainly murdered his wife, but it’s fine, because she was real mean and talked a lot, so she was asking for it, am I right, fellas!? (The fact that this reveal has almost nothing to do with anything and almost certainly did not need to exist outside of getting a cheap, misogynistic laugh does it no favors). The fight scene between Brad Pitt and Bruce Lee, although entertaining, could easily be interpreted as a slightly washed up white stunt man putting the late martial artist, at the time in his mid-to-late 20s, in his place, which isn’t a great look for the only prominent speaking scene an actor of color has in this movie. And those are just story points, while on the production end, the film cast Emile Hirsch, who, in 2015, was convicted for strangling Paramount executive Daniele Bernfeld to the point of unconsciousness. Last, but certainly not least, the film was originally set to be released on August 9 of this year, the 50th anniversary of Sharon Tate’s murder, which, without going into spoiler territory, no matter how the film decided to handle the Sharon Tate/Manson family side of its story, was going to be an astronomically bad look. But, yeah, outside of the 210 words I just used to go into detail about how QT is still kind of a creep, this is still one of his least cynical films.
This is primarily delivered through Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio’s struggling actor, who, after an unsuccessful transition from television to film left his successful TV western, Bounty Law, cancelled and his film career nonexistent, has been taking villain roles in newer TV shows in order to help make the leads seem more impressive to the audience. Although I was never quite on the same train as a lot of people were with DiCaprio and his lack of an Oscar, the man’s an obvious talent, and that is on display here, just as it was on display in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Here, it’s impressive to watch him switch between the cool and collected characters he is playing in film and TV, characters we are used to seeing DiCaprio himself portray, into the much less confident Dalton, with slight pauses scattered throughout his speech, showing a man who is unsure even of the words he is trying to say.
Beyond that, Dalton is not one who is hesitant to show his more “negative” emotions. Although the film arguably plays these scenes as comedic, I don’t think it’s so much the emotions themselves that are the joke, it’s more DiCaprio’s line readings inside of the emotions (a fine line, sure, but one I think the film executes). Most notably, after a particularly difficult sequence shooting his newest villain appearance in the pilot of a new western, Dalton goes back into his trailer and, through tears, berates himself as an embarrassment. He yells at himself for drinking eight whiskey sours the night before and briefly mocks his struggle with finding the right words. It’s a funny sequence, but it never feels like the joke is that he is overemotional. This is further supported by an earlier scene when Dalton first has to confront that his career is going down the drain, and his long-time stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, playing what feels like a less overtly-southern cousin of his Inglorious Basterds character), comforts him and gifts him his sunglasses, so that Dalton’s tears are not on public display. He doesn’t tell him to toughen up, or shame him in any other way, but instead tries to protect him from the ever-critical public eye, and consoles him. For me, a person who has been known to get more than a little tearful whenever he processes any kind of negative emotion, getting to see not only a male character be able to come to term with his own failings and struggles, and processing them through tears, while not having those tears be the joke, but also getting to see another male character treat those emotions as valid, is unfortunately rare and is refreshing here, and a very pleasant surprise coming from a writer/director I very rarely associate with positive displays of humanity.
This only briefly touches on what works in this film. Basically every performance is great and delivers exactly what it needs to, including Margot Robbie as the aforementioned Sharon Tate. After some drama at the Cannes film festival, I was a little bit concerned about the role that Tate would have in the movie, but after seeing the movie, it does feel like the whole thing was a bit overblown (not to say that Tarantino’s short response was the ideal way to handle the situation), as Tate’s role is small for a very intentional reason. This movie, at its core, is about Rick Dalton and his relationship with both his long-time stunt double and his struggling career. It just happens to all be building to a fateful night in August of 1969, and Tate’s role is simply her living her life at the same time. Now, would I be as kind to all of this had the film actually come out on the anniversary of Tate’s death? Absolutely not, that would have been unforgivable, and, honestly, the fact that was ever a possibility will always slightly sour this movie for me. All of that aside, Robbie plays the up-and-coming actress with a wonderful glee, and the sequence where she watches herself in The Wrecking Crew is one of the standouts in the film (quick shout-out to the decision to leave the real Tate in that film, when they could have imposed Robbie into it, a trick they did previously in the film with Dalton), as she proudly looks around the theater as her character onscreen gets the reactions that she wants. After watching her struggle to be recognized by the theater’s employees, seeing her get to revel in the general public’s positive reaction to her performance is easily among the happiest feelings I’ve had for a character in a long time. It’s not the strongest arc in the film by any means, but it’s never intended to be. It’s intended to be an ancillary side plot, acting as a reminder of what is to come, while still allowing it’s talented star to shine, and shine she does.
In the end, this film, despite its production and script issues, is still one of, if not the most accessible and hopeful of Tarantino’s filmography, while still feeling like it fits right in with the rest of his obviously storied career. The climax of the film, I’m happy to say, is still incredibly tense while also a little bit bonkers, one of my favorite combinations of traits that a movie can have. I hope that whatever Tarantino chooses as his tenth and supposedly final film (will it be Star Trek? [no way it’s Star Trek]) follows this film by staying true to his style while also being surprisingly hopeful.
(Thank you for reading, I love you all).