Heartfelt, by Bob Connally

28 Jul

Extreme violence, lengthy conversations set at tables or in cars, movie references most people won’t even notice, perfectly crafted soundtracks, liberal usage of “colorful metaphors,” and so very many shots of feet are just a few of the surface level staples of the work of Quentin Tarantino. But if you’re really paying attention you see so much more revealed with each film and he can still surprise us after 27 years and either 9 or 10 movies, depending on how you count Kill Bill (for the record, Tarantino himself considers Volumes 1 & 2 a single film). For instance, the word “heartfelt” had never come to mind with any of his earlier films but it’s clear to me that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is just that.

While there has always been the prevailing feeling that Tarantino cares about his characters and genuinely loves at least some of them, there’s a compassion that comes through for the three leads of this film that never quite feels apparent even for Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds or Django. It is not just the characters that Tarantino cares deeply for here, it is the world they inhabit. The filmmaker turned 6 in 1969, the year Once Upon a Time is set and he presents it in what he himself would describe as a “realer than real” way. While David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac immersed us in a 1969 California that felt realistic down to the last detail, Tarantino takes us into a more nostalgic world that we know never really could have quite existed. Upon re-watching Inglourious Basterds recently I was reminded that it opens with the words, “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France.” That film, Django Unchained, and now this- especially this- are Tarantino’s fairy tales. If the Brothers Grimm can have Hansel and Gretel trying to escape being baked into a pie in a story meant for small children then Quentin Tarantino can have Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) walk into the home of the Manson “family” in a film made for adults.

In February of ’69, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a struggling actor. Once on top of the TV world as the star of the western series Bounty Law, he finds himself in a Hollywood that doesn’t seem to have a place for him anymore outside of the occasional guest starring role as “the heavy” on westerns or cop shows. It becomes clear to him after a lunch with a producer (Al Pacino) who wants to cast Rick in some low-budget Italian “spaghetti westerns,” that he is “a has been.” Rick’s best and seemingly only friend is Cliff, who at one time had been his stunt man. However, after an ugly (probably true) story about Cliff becomes accepted as fact by the rest of Hollywood, he can only get work driving Rick around town and doing small maintenance jobs around Rick’s home. Knowing each is all the other has, the two remain loyal to one another as Rick’s star continues to fade. Meanwhile, living next door to Rick are up and coming starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) who is fresh off the wild success of directing Rosemary’s Baby.

As he has in so many of his films, Tarantino is happy to simply spend time with his characters and follow them living the seemingly small moments of their lives. He isn’t really in a hurry to get anywhere in terms of advancing a plot. He’s more interested in his characters and how they interact with the world he’s created for them. The difference between Once Upon a Time and many of his previous films however, is that this one doesn’t seem to have some sort of conclusion it seems to be making its way towards. Kill Bill is of course all about the build up to killing Bill. Inglourious Basterds is leading towards two independent sets of characters trying to kill the entire nazi high command in a movie theater in 1944 and much to the audience’s surprise, succeeding. Django Unchained is the story of a man trying to rescue his wife. Going back to his earlier films, Reservoir Dogs is simply the story of a heist gone wrong, Jackie Brown is recognizable as an ensemble crime story, and even Pulp Fiction has the MacGuffin of the briefcase at its center.

While viewers may go into this movie believing that this is the story of Charles Manson’s followers murdering five people, including Sharon Tate, this is not that movie. For those wary of this film, believing it will be disrespectful to the memories of Tate and those four other unfortunate souls, you have nothing to worry about. Tate’s own sister has given Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood her stamp of approval and it’s easy to see why. Through Robbie’s wonderful performance and the way in which Tarantino presents Tate as a person, we just see a young, vibrant woman full of life and joy. She isn’t really a part of Rick or Cliff’s story and she’s not moving a plot forward. We’re just watching her spend an ordinary day out in the world and we share her sense of, “Wow, isn’t this cool!” when she sees her name on a movie theater marquee and she hears an audience laughing, enjoying her performance in The Wrecking Crew. Instead of editing Robbie into scenes from the real 1969 film, Tarantino lets real bits of Tate’s performance play as Robbie looks up at the screen. It’s as it should be.

While Tate is quietly yet thoroughly enjoying herself, Rick is trying to make the most of his opportunity playing the villain in the pilot episode of another TV western, Lancer. Rick’s fear and insecurity come through in his trouble remembering lines and in his real-life stutter. Having easily the most interesting day though is Cliff, who picks up a young hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley, The Nice Guys) needing a ride back to Spahn’s Movie Ranch, home of the not as yet infamous Manson “family.”

As Tarantino jumps between these three storylines there’s a clear and genuinely exciting sense that one has no idea where this is all going. Because this is a filmmaker who has earned the audience’s trust, we know that he knows where he’s going but we don’t. It is all too rare to experience this in a movie so when it happens it’s something special. Adding to that, there’s the Inglourious Basterds factor in our minds when it comes to how this all may or may not play out.

It is far too soon to say where this falls in terms of Tarantino’s filmography but it is not too soon at all to say what a pleasure it is to watch and listen to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. While he may come off as obnoxious in interviews, there’s no question he has a singular voice as a filmmaker and for those of us who love and appreciate his work this is a treat. Over the years, I have found Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting to be uneven. While I have loved some of his performances, particularly in Catch Me If You Can and The Wolf of Wall Street, I’m somewhat less enthusiastic about his work in Gangs of New York or his Oscar-winning performance in The Revenant. This is one of the better performances of his career. We may laugh at Rick, almost to the point of mocking him, but only almost. There’s a human being with a beating heart there and we want him to be okay. We root for him to have success again. Also, anytime he complains about hippies is hilarious and DiCaprio really sells Rick’s disdain for the younger generation.

For his part, Pitt is excellent as a guy who knows his life will probably not get any better than it is right now and it’s not great. Despite us knowing he probably did the terrible thing everyone in the film other than Rick believes he did, we care about him too and thoroughly enjoy some of the very violent things he gets to do.

Robbie will almost certainly get at the very least an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It’s such a natural performance and she holds our attention without seemingly doing much at all. In terms of the ratio of lines spoken to screen time, Sharon Tate may say less than any other major Tarantino character but she doesn’t have to.

As with his other films, Once Upon a Time is jam-packed with great actors leaving their marks in supporting roles and one after another is so much fun to watch. There may not be a filmmaker right now who genuinely likes actors as much as Tarantino does. He really gives them opportunities to shine in even the briefest moments without veering into full on self-indulgent Judd Apatow territory.

Quentin Tarantino makes movies for people who really love movies and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood may prove to be the ultimate example of that when his career is all said and done. This is one for the cinephiles. If that’s you, see this on the big screen the first chance you get.

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