At the end of the sixties, former Hollywood leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) is facing up to the fact that his glory days are behind him. Relegated to disposable bad guys roles, talent agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) tries to convince him to do Italian Spaghetti westerns but Rick won’t hear of it. Talking it over with long-time confidante and stunt-man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick is much more interested in meeting the director of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ who’s just moved in next door with his wife (Margot Robbie).
...the story is really about the wafting presence of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.
‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ is neither a fairytale nor a slavish western remake as its title might suggest. Instead, director Quentin Tarantino has delivered a ‘distraction to a murder’.
Still carrying his requisite five-minute cameos where former collaborators can shine, ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ centres around actor Leonardo Di Caprio’s Rick Dalton and his stunt-man buddy Cliff Booth as played by Brad Pitt. And yet whilst both stars take up the largest amount of screen time, the story is really about the wafting presence of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. A real-life tabloid-headline waiting to happen, Tarantino teases you with her fate without ever mixing the fatal ingredients. Tracking shots leer from passing car windows and the tousled-haired hippies which make up much of the temporal detail, all smile with a much later-to-be-revealed, paranoid purpose.
In saying that, when death finally does arrive, it comes with the usual over-the-top violence and an ironically-pivoted pop track… by which time you’re thinking “Ok, so far…So, Tarantino”, but even then, Quentin doesn’t want to let go of his ‘colours without numbers’ premise just yet. Riveted hard onto the stud-like personas of Rick and Cliff, he would rather drag your real-world speculations beyond the credits and out the cinema door if at all possible.
So, depending on your appetite for foreplay, ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ can feel like another shaggy dog story that might have worked “had it not been for those darn kids” in the third reel. With the crisp, snappy dialogue of Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ now a distant memory, character exchanges here feel like deliberate prompts for post-ironic commentary, all of which appropriately leaves us at the end of the road where fairytales happen: in ‘Hollywood’.
Standing out from all this distracting scenery, Brad Pitt becomes the real charm of ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’. Operating somewhere between Burt Reynolds and Sam Shepherd, his stunt guy is so much more than a six million dollar man in waiting. Taken in isolation to a plot that continually nods at a real atrocity yet to happen off-screen, his Cliff Booth is the real reason to watch this valley of the dolls which Tarantino has stacked to fall.