Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is arguably director/writer Quentin Tarantino's funniest film. The methodical movie sacrifices a straightforward narrative to take more time exploring the lives and interactions of strange people in a distinct era of Hollywood history. Deliberately slow and with much more of a focus on character than narrative, the movie is the most self-indulgent (and funny) film yet from the director.
Set in 1969 Los Angeles, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood the movie largely follows former television western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-man/assistant/best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is an emotional wreck over the state of his career, typically on the verge of tears and with a slight stutter that only disappears when he fully jumps into a scene.
Likewise, work has dried up for Cliff. He's no longer pulling any stunts (thanks in part to salacious rumors about the death of his wife), essentially forcing him to serve as a glorified gopher to Rick. Dalton is also the new neighbor of Shannon Tate (Margot Robbie), an up-and-coming actress who lives with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). Tate will historically become targets of the Manson Family cult, who inadvertently have run-ins with Booth months before they ever intend to come for Tate.
For much of the film's runtime, there's no real driving narrative. Tarantino is more interested in exploring the lives of these characters on a day-to-day basis and showcasing their personal journeys and tribulations. This is also when the film shines, with each new sequence focusing on the lives of people on the verge of a cultural shift. DiCaprio is fantastic as the short-tempered and emotionally fragile Dalton. A walking ball of neurosis over the state of his career, many of the film's biggest laughs come from his fragile ego being set off by a bad line or a misunderstood slight.
Booth and Tate likewise explore Los Angeles with a defined sense of fun character beats, the film jumping around location and scene frequently. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has a breezy sense of style, allowing the script and the cast plenty of room to explore their characters in distinct, short bursts. The entire cast features strong acting, although arguably only Mike Moh makes as much of an impression as DiCaprio. Moh only really has an extended cameo as Bruce Lee, but it's possibly the best sequence in the entire film.
The film is also easily Tarantino's most indulgent film yet. Entire sections of the film are defined by shots of people driving cars and listening to music. Character discussions that would be cut from other films are still here and carry entire scenes. While everything is polished and strongly constructed, not all of it's strictly necessary, even as the film positions itself more as an anthology about Los Angeles. All of this contributes to an almost three-hour run time where many characters are introduced for a single sequence before disappearing from the rest of the film. Tarantino is a gifted filmmaker, so all of the scenes are well-written and directed with finesse. But at times, the film drags (especially all of the driving sequences, seriously.)
Fans looking for an in-depth and sensationalist Tarantino approach to the Manson Family will be disappointed, as the demented group only plays a minor role in the film before returning in force in the third act. The scenes where Booth explores the Manson Family ranch are purposefully unsettling and engaging, but never lose touch with the dry comedy that defines the tone of the film.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood feels like Tarantino's answer to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, managing to be a less violent, while bittersweet and self-analyzing, version of Pulp Fiction. Both films were slow, methodical stories about the people who live in Los Angeles, and how they interact and shape each other's lives without even realizing it. It makes the movie more engaging and interesting than it could have been otherwise, managing to avoid many of the potential hang-ups of the film.
Once Upon A Time leans into the more Tarantino comedic elements, and touches on much of his past work. It's a surprisingly introspective film, exploring the heights of being discovered and the lows of being forgotten. Knowing it's one of the probable final films from the director, it's not surprising that it's so introspective. The slow pace might throw off some viewers hoping for a more straightforward and fast-paced film. But by being constructed more like an anthology about an era rather than just another look at the Manson Family, Tarantino finds more to say about growing and maturing within the entertainment industry than he could probably find just talking about Manson.
Written, directed and produced by Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Burt Reynolds, Al Pacino, Tim Roth, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis, Luke Perry, Emile Hirsch and Dakota Fanning. It is scheduled for release on July 26.