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How Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Finds Humor Amid Tragedy

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, in theaters now.

Many Quentin Tarantino films are in part defined by a sense of humor. But of all his of works, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might be one of the most overtly funny, with several outright-comedic sequences.

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Thanks to a signature approach that makes the film more a collection of vignettes than a single narrative, it's able to use the comedy to infuse the period with life, draw out character beats and poke fun at the ridiculousness of the villains.

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Bruce Lee Vs. Cliff

As one would expect from a Tarantino film set in 1969, there are plenty of comedic references to film and television of the era, ranging from snide asides about Batman to the sheer absurdity of parties at the Playboy Mansion. Perhaps the best example is when Cliff (Brad Pitt) remembers why he can no longer land work as a stuntman: When his acting partner Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) was brought onto the set of The Green Hornet, Cliff found himself in a standoff against Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).

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Lee talks up the difference between martial arts and western boxing, and how tournaments in the United States are freer to allow combatants to actually go all out in their fight. Eventually, Lee claims he could take down a boxer in a fair fight, to Cliff's disbelief. What follows is a quick-paced confrontation filled with bravado from both sides in which Lee kicks Cliff in the face before being thrown into a car. The producers' outrage over the damages is drowned out by Lee's insistence that he didn't actually lose the fight.

Rick's Acting Troubles

One of the more consistent threats of the film, at least in the mind of Rick, is his fading career. The show in which he used to star has been off the air for a few years, during which Rick has resorted to playing minor guest roles on largely forgettable TV series. That's left him on the verge of a breakdown that's played up for tragic laughs. He has a genuine fear about his star fading, but his whining and crying is so over the top that it's comical.

Look no further than the scenes in which Rick has to be coached through a breakdown by an 8-year-old co-star. It's a tragic scene at its core, as Rick talks about a book he's reading and how its theme of growing old affects him on an emotional level.

The Manson Family

There's, of course, an undercurrent of malice due to the presence of the Manson Family. The cult that gathered around Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) tries to appear to be worry-free, there's a disturbing subtext to the members' early interactions with Cliff. All of that builds to a night in August 1969, when they arrive outside Sharon Tate's home intending to murder everyone inside. However, they're quickly sidetracked by a drunken Rick yelling at them.

That chance interruption changes the course of the film, and history, as the members of the Manson Family try to figure out where they've seen Rick before. They're even a little starstruck when they realize on which show he used to appear. Even their decision to switch targets and try to kill Rick is more played for laughs than anything else. The entire film plays out in a similar manner, with otherwise-threatening scenarios undermined by comedy.

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.

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