The first hint that Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a more wistful film than it may appear is in its title. Starting with the magic words that mark the opening of a fairy tale, followed by the bridge of a contemplative ellipsis, the title evokes the empty, deep ache that underlies all nostalgia, a longing for a slightly remembered moment in time that may never have really existed at all. If any contemporary film director’s work stands up to such detailed reading, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s; in this film, as in all his others, he breaks down a place and time — in this case, Hollywood, 1969 — and rebuilds it in his own movie-obsessed image, each deliberately placed movie poster and casually dropped reference one piece of a cryptic puzzle (Barbara Ling’s production design is a wittily intricate treasure trove of fake movie memorabilia with some real stuff in the mix too). Here, however, the writer-director’s own longings and anxieties are closer to the surface than usual. A few years back, Tarantino announced, in a stop-the-presses fashion, that he would officially retire from filmmaking after making his tenth movie. It remains to be seen if the rock-star auteur will make good on his retirement plan, but his rationale behind it appears to be sincere: If he goes out while on top, he’ll cement his legacy and never begin the long slide into diminishing returns that some filmmakers experience as they grow older. This is a film where we see the writer-director wrestling with his own inevitable obsolescence.
Like Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a luxuriant ode to a bygone era of filmmaking and a singular bold reinterpretation of a violent chapter of history. Opening in February of 1969, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood takes place at the end of an era, a big moment of transition for the entertainment industry, when the New Hollywood was rushing in fast to kill the old one. In one of his usual brilliant exploitations of star power and image, Tarantino casts Leonardo DiCaprio — whose once baby face look has finally begun to show signs of middle age — as the fictional Rick Dalton, a one-time giant of the small screen. Dalton, whose career peaked with a popular Western television show from the ’50s called “Bounty Law,” has been reduced to the guest-star heavy of primetime TV, each week getting beat up to make the young actors nipping at his heels look tougher — a hustle that a veteran agent (Al Pacino) explains will have an effect on how the audience perceives him. In other words, Dalton is a has-been whose days in the spotlight are numbered. Were he a real person, Tarantino would have probably tried to revive his career by now, throwing him a comeback role in one of his own Westerns.
Brad Pitt & Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Dalton spends most of his days driving around Los Angeles with his friend, stunt double, and really de facto assistant, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is more of a never-was; his only claim to notoriety is the rumor that he killed his wife and got away with it, a small backstory that is left anxiously sitting there. He’s also a more mythic, deadpan figure than the rattled Rick Dalton, which makes him the perfect fit for Pitt, who here has found his best role since The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford to apply his strong and slightly unnerving aging-outlaw cool. The first screen pairing between DiCaprio and Pitt proves well worth the wait, even if the more practical realities of the actor-stuntman relationship don’t seem to be of interest to Tarantino. Which is completely fine, because its the personalities and characterization that really matters. DiCaprio, his golden-boyness effectively turned down, is both mockable and sympathetic as a handsome has-been. But he’s also cradled beautifully by Pitt as the most loyal of pals.
Booth and Dalton hang out sometimes at the latter’s swanky Hollywood home, which happens to sit right next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s home. If the film has a third lead, it’s the non-fictional Tate (Margot Robbie), going about her own life in the edge of the episodic, shaggy narrative. Tate, of course, was murdered in 1969 by the Manson Family, which gives this often breezy and humorous film a festering queasiness underneath the surface. The endearing friendship between Rick and Cliff is at the emotional heart of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, which openly languishes for the carefree irresponsibility of youth. Rick doesn’t want to leave behind the good times with his best buddy. For most of its two-hour and forty-minute runtime, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood both does and doesn’t behave the way you might expect a Quentin Tarantino movie to behave. The storytelling is pretty linear, with some flashbacks and cutaways thrown in. The talk loops are endless, as usual, but the film takes its time to gather momentum. The loose hangout vibe achieves some of the mellowness and melancholy of Jackie Brown (which is a very good thing). A chill enters the movie whenever the attention shifts to the Manson family, especially when we arrive at their temporary home at the Spahn Movie Ranch, but the acts of strong violence are (initially) few and far between.
Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Tarantino hasn’t planted his foot this deeply into the real world for a couple decades (with much help from Robert Richardson’s warm, sprawling yet intimate cinematography). In the years since his most subtle work, the aforementioned Jackie Brown, Tarantino has mostly stomped around a genre sandbox of his own creation, toying with the conventions of war movies, kung-fu and Samurai movies, Westerns, locked-room mysteries and drag-racing exploitation films. The Hollywood of his Hollywood, though, isn’t entirely “real” either: Dalton’s fictional career gives Tarantino the opportunity to offer snippets of imaginary projects (all of which are an exuberant watch), even as the great soundtrack of the radio hits keeps the film tied to its chosen time and place. Focusing on the movie industry itself actually grounds Tarantino. His characters, in multiple respects, are real people this time.
Like some of his earlier work, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood often can feel more like a collection of great scenes than a full coherent narrative. It’s baggy and loose and episodic, wandering off into tangents. But then again cinema is more than just plot, and there’s still a strong through-line running straight across the film, and it’s a deep respect and empathy for actors and their relationship to their craft, reputation, and waning celebrity. In a wonderful mid-film passage, Rick Dalton is dropped onto the set of a TV Western, and trades on-camera barbs with one of his effective replacements (Timothy Olyphant) and off-camera banter with a child actor (Julia Butters) who may represent the new school of method performers invading the industry at the time; the sequence takes Rick Dalton from the humiliation of a blown take to the rapture of a nailed one.
Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, as well, carries a unique rhythm with it: it’s entirely dictated by the character’s moods, anxieties and pleasures. It’s also a staggering stop-and-go rhythm, and given that you could blink and miss some of the actors in this huge ensemble cast. You will, however, remember the faces of Bruce Dern, and the late Luke Perry, Mike Moh giving a solid Bruce Lee impersonation, also Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Mikey Madison and Dakota Fanning as Manson Family members. There’s also Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator and also the film’s part-time narrator (the latter is probably the film’s biggest misstep). Most of all, perhaps, you will remember Robbie in the role of Sharon Tate, who pops in every so often, hijacking the narrative as she goes about her day, her kind, luminating presence working in almost a counter rhythm to the main story. In one fantastic unconnected subplot, we follow Tate as she casually goes to a Westwood theater screening of her 1968 movie The Wrecking Crew. We see the real Tate light up the big screen, and Robbie’s eyes glow with joy in the audience, as she watches the person she’s playing. It’s a moving act of homage, and it is not, crucially, the only way in which Tarantino seeks to inspire a fresh and compassionate reconsideration of Tate’s memory.
The final act of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is funny, scary, with moments of troubling distress, and exhilarating by turns; the meandering structure clicks into place as it becomes clear where Tarantino has been taking this story and, given his track record, perhaps could only have taken this story. This is hardly the first time that this director has melded fiction and reality into blood-soaked partners; nor is it the first time he has made the outrageous suggestion that cinema, as both an art and an industry, can make up for some of life’s most grievous imperfections in ways that nothing else can. Of course, no spoilers will be given, but spoilers or no spoilers, you may not be terribly surprised by the ending, which doesn’t mean that you won’t be astonished. An absorbing, richly evocative, meandering elegy for a certain time in American pop-culture, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a filmmaker wrestling with his own inevitable obsolescence.
Images via: Sony Pictures