Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
It’s been a quarter of a century since Pulp Fiction exploded onto the silver screen, revolutionizing the language of cinema and exposing the idea of the three-act structure as quaint. Since then, Quentin Tarantino has crafted a career for himself as Hollywood’s bad boy nerd—a chatterbox cineaste who’ll throw poetically choreographed scenes of violence at you while wearing his love for the medium on his blood-splattered sleeve. It’s that electric combination of virtuosity and self-awareness that has powered Tarantino’s filmography through entries masterful (Inglourious Basterds), mediocre (Death Proof), to downright messy (The Hateful Eight).
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But Tarantino is no longer an enfant terrible—in fact, he is in the upper reaches of middle age—and one has to wonder if the filmmaker is feeling the urge to look back, feeling pangs of insecurity about still being relevant. Those are concerns Tarantino seems to be addressing in his ninth (and supposedly penultimate) film, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The film is Tarantino at his warmest and most vulnerable, and would have qualified as one of his best…if only he could have reined his scattershot ideas into a coherent whole.
Set over the course of several months in 1969, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood tells two parallel stories that any avid student of Tinseltown history knows are destined to converge. The first (and main) story explores the friendship between two of Tarantino’s finest fictional creations: washed-up TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is wracked with self-doubt after he abandoned his top-rating mid-‘50s TV show Bounty Law to pursue a movie career that went nowhere. Now reduced to playing villains in episodic TV, Dalton gets no solace when gravelly-voiced B-movie producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers him a chance to headline spaghetti westerns in Rome. “It’s official, buddy,” Dalton blurts out to Booth, “I’m a goddamn has-been!”—before collapsing in tears on his stuntman’s shoulder.
Tarantino portrays this friendship with a refreshing lack of irony or toxic machismo. Nominally, Dalton keeps Booth around because he needs someone to drive him around after he got his license revoked for drunk driving. But it’s obvious the two men need each other: Dalton needs Booth’s laconic self-possession to ground him and keep him from spiraling into depression, while Booth needs the sense of purpose that Dalton gives him. That’s because, like Dalton, Booth has been kicked around by the Hollywood establishment: After being acquitted of charges stemming from his wife’s disappearance (a flashback gives no clear-cut answers), the rough-and-tumble war veteran-turned-stuntman has now found himself unemployable—and an on-set run-in with Green Hornet star Bruce Lee (played ferociously by Mike Moh) only cements his pariah status. Now, after spending his days babysitting his star charge, Booth drives his rickety car down from the Hollywood hills and back to his rundown trailer, where he spends his evenings teaching his pitbull Cindy some manners.
One of the film’s obvious strengths is the interplay between DiCaprio and Pitt, who are starring together for the first time. The two marquee stars bring their trademark strengths to their roles—DiCaprio with his deliberate intensity, Pitt with his laidback charm—and if DiCaprio has the slight advantage, it’s because he gets to externalize Dalton’s scenery-chewing issues. Their chemistry is almost enough to tide you over the various digressions in the script that, while Tarantino hallmarks you should be used to by now, often pad this film’s 2-hour-and-39-minute running time. There are the cinematic pastiches, the obligatory dance sequence or two, the obsession with feet framed front and center, and a hilarious extended encounter between Dalton and a precocious child star (Julia Butters), who waxes academic on the benefits of Method Acting. There is also a subplot between Booth and a dippy hippie (Margaret Qualley) he keeps encountering on the streets of Los Angeles—a chick who, it turns out, is squatting at an unused backlot called the Spahn Movie Ranch with her cohorts and a failed musician named Charles Manson (Mindhunter’s Damon Herriman, who is in the movie for all of half a minute).
You can admire Tarantino’s confidence as a filmmaker in the way he milks Booth’s encounter with the Manson Family for all its nail-biting tension, or his audacity for reducing a Hollywood legend like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) to a deliverer of exposition. (Or not. Various quarters have been savaging the auteur for making Bruce Lee—a pioneering Asian star—look stupid just to prop up a fictional character’s bonafides.) But more than any of his other films, Once Upon a Time… displays his latent gift for summoning a bygone place and era. In eulogizing the black-and-white morality of the ‘50s, he presents Los Angeles as a place where the old guards are being edged out by the budding counterculture, movies jostle with the upstart medium of TV for attention, where commercials talk at the consumer instead of persuading them, where billboards for movies are still lovingly hand-painted. Once Upon a Time… isn’t just nostalgic; it overwhelms with a pervasive, immersive sense of time.
The other story is the more problematic one, because it involves Dalton’s next-door neighbors at Cielo Drive: the New Hollywood director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Dalton and Booth’s story keeps bumping up against Sharon’s, but while the cloud of the fate awaiting her casts a long shadow over the narrative, her story seems strangely tangential. While Dalton bumbles through his career issues and Booth ambles into the cocoon of Manson’s eerie family, Sharon flits around Los Angeles, attending a party at the Playboy mansion and shopping for her wunderkind husband—for all intents and purposes acting like a trophy wife. In one sequence, Tarantino shows her sneaking into a screening of the Dean Martin spy spoof The Wrecking Crew, where she has second-tier billing, and Robbie’s undiluted pleasure at eliciting laughs from the audience makes Sharon achingly human—and exposes all the more how underutilized she is no matter how she towers over the plot.
Then the third act arrives, outlining the events of that fateful day and night in August. And something odd happens: The narrator, who is sparingly used up to this point, is suddenly annotating every incident and explaining every motivation. It’s as if Tarantino has lost confidence in his own virtuosity, checking in with the audience to make sure they’re still in this with him. But all this does is intrude into your experience, underlining the artificiality of the whole enterprise. I won’t spoil how Tarantino treats what happened on August 9; all I’ll say is that what he does fulfills your revenge fantasies. But it won’t satisfy to the deeper, baser degree that the climax of Inglourious Basterds does. It makes you wistful, but won’t make you applaud. For these reasons, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood can’t be called a masterpiece, more like higher-pedigree pulp.
Photographs courtesy of Columbia Pictures