It is very comfortable to dismiss Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as yet another love letter to the glorious days of Hollywood. Everything from the title to the retro poster design screams nothing else but a writer-director going ga-ga over the times when times were good and actors used to flaunt and live the glamourous lifestyle with impunity.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood leans very close to real-life when it comes to depicting changing times at Hollywood. Even though the events take place in the late ’60s, you have no trouble drawing parallels to real-life today. There is a central theme that relies on actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, struggling to adjust to the changing times. However, very little is done to get that point across. Westerns were dying, so it is natural to see a prominent western star struggle to find work. But he does manage to find work, just not the work he would usually prefer or do. DiCaprio does manage to get us to care about his plight. The Academy Award winner brings some of his Django Unchained ferocity, making for some stellar in-movie performances. We laugh, we stare in awe at his talent, but we never feel sorry for his dying star power.
We do, however, feel sorry for Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Here’s a stuntman who’s affected by the lead’s lack of work. Stoic and composed, Booth manages to invoke pity and admiration at the same time. Which is a miracle, considering the majority of his screentime is consists of driving around or fixing TV antennas shirtless. He may not have the glamorous lifestyle that his friend struggles to hold on to, but Booth does not complain. You’re just happy to sit through his long, overdrawn sequences as the story progresses along.
Speaking of story, there isn’t one. At least not in the conventional sense. Tarantino wants to take you to a place that only people in their 60s can relate. The story is not the rotating cast of real and fictional actors in this movie’s universe but the times itself. There will be moments when you won’t know where a particular scene is going or why. The anticipatory nature of the screenplay is deceptive because people familiar with history are holding their breath, expecting for some grisly conclusion.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood can be summed up like this – if you keep on expecting the worst, you’re going to be disappointed, which is ultimately a good thing. This movie is not Hollywood jerking over itself. It is just a peek into those times and wondering what could’ve been.