Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review: Tarantino's 1960s Love Letter

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Bolstered by strong performances and immersive production design, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an introspective and rewarding film from Tarantino.

Ever since he made his feature debut with Reservoir Dogs back in 1992, Quentin Tarantino has been one of his generation's most unique and fascinating directors. Combining his distinct sensibilities with his pure - at times unbridled - love for cinema, Tarantino has always found a way to entertain his audience, regardless of which genre he's tackling. Nine films into his career, Tarantino paints a loving homage to a bygone era in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a period piece that takes viewers back to 1960s California. Bolstered by strong performances and immersive production design, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an introspective and rewarding film from Tarantino.

What sets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood apart from Tarantino's recent fare like Django Unchained is its lack of a singular through-line that thrusts the story forward. Rather than be plot-driven with a traditional narrative, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acts more like a snapshot of a specific time period, taking viewers along for the ride as they follow the characters such as fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) through their daily lives. For a majority of its running time, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is quite restrained for a Tarantino picture, deliberately taking its time to establish the characters and environment in ways that slowly draw the viewer into its world. Granted, there are still plenty of famous Tarantino trademarks throughout the script, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood plays as a refreshing change-of-pace for the auteur. There are times where the movie feels its length due to Tarantino's approach, but it's still largely effective.

One of the primary reasons why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is so effective is because the characters are fun to watch. Rick and Cliff are the emotional core of the movie, with DiCaprio and Pitt displaying an inherent sweetness in their characters' relationship; they feel like two old friends who have been through a lot. Unsurprisingly, both actors (who have worked with Tarantino before) are in excellent form here, whether they're carrying stretches of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood alone on their shoulders or playing off each other with terrific rapport. As the emotionally insecure Rick, DiCaprio gets an opportunity to showcase a different side of his range in ways that can be humorous and heartfelt. Pitt fits the part of Cliff like a glove, channeling the no-nonsense and easygoing sides of the stunt man's personality, depending on what the scene calls for. The two are always entertaining onscreen and make a great pair.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood made headlines for putting together one of Tarantino's most star-studded ensembles, but a majority of these roles are small by comparison. The likes of Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Mike Moh, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Perry (among many others) are in the film for a scene or two, but still manage to make the most of their minimal screen time. The most substantial supporting part is that of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives next door to Rick with her husband, Roman Polanski. Admittedly, this is hardly the meatiest role Robbie's had in her young career, but she too maximizes what she's given to work with and finds ways to endear herself to the audience. Even though Sharon's storyline is largely disconnected from what's going on with Rick and Cliff (up until the very end), the cutaways to her life are still interesting and don't drag the movie down.

Margot Robbie dancing as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Another great asset Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has at its disposal is Tarantino's tremendous crew that works diligently to recreate 1960s Los Angeles in intricate detail. Whether it's the City of Angels itself or the TV sets Rick is shooting on, the film is very successful in its mission to transport viewers back in time. Production designer Barbara Ling, costume designer Arianne Phillips, and cinematographer Robert Richardson (among countless others) all deserve credit for their contributions, as they work together to craft something immensely alluring, grabbing hold of the viewer and never letting go until the credits roll. And unsurprisingly, Tarantino's soundtrack selections help set the mood for the scenes in ways only he can pull off.

All in all, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a different beast from Tarantino, but very much the product of his unique vision. It's nice to see the director tone down the usual "Tarantinoisms" that have become well-known throughout his career, calling upon them only at opportune times to enhance their impact. In some respects, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn't as accessible to general audiences as something like Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained were, but it's still worth checking out on the big screen. For cinephiles in the mood for a change-of-pace from the usual summer fare, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might be exactly what you need.


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 161 minutes and is rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments!

Our Rating:

4 out of 5 (Excellent)
Key Release Dates
  • Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) release date: Jul 26, 2019
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