In the past, I have accused Quentin Tarantino of being a cinematic tourist, taking the gestalt of films and genres he adores and aping the mechanics without the sense of soul that made them so special in the first place, like a particularly enterprising fan-fic writer. But with his ninth film -- easily his most amiable since Jackie Brown -- you get the sense that he's actually revealing something of genuine emotional resonance: For once, the tourist is showing us something of his childhood hometown.
It just so happens that his hometown is in Southern California (he was born in Knoxville, Tenn., but spent much of his youth and adolescence in and around LA), where this film is situated. He captures so much of that place and era, set very precisely in a seven-month window of 1969, it hearkens back with a nostalgia that feels absolutely earned.
Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
90 Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Lorenza Izzo, Mike Moh, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Rumer Willis, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Clu Gulager, Brenda Vaccaro, Nicholas Hammond, Martin Kove
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rated: R, for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
We meet TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best compadre, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), in what seems to be the winding down of the former's career. His regular Western series, Bounty Law, long-since canceled, his film career sputtering to a crawl, the only steady work he can find is guest-starring as the "heavy" in other people's shows, getting his comeuppance at the end of every episode.
Filled with growing insecurities (which DiCaprio exemplifies with a well-timed stutter), and an increasing alcohol addiction, Rick takes Cliff, whom he has hired as his driver and personal concierge, out for endless nights on the town, the two of them inseparable buddies, taking all comers and drinking themselves to incoherency, as Rick laments what might have been for him had things gone differently.
By contrast, living right next door to Dalton in Benedict Canyon, is rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), newly married to superstar director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and who would later, along with some of her friends, become one of the tragic victims of Charles Manson's counter-culture cult family one sweltering night in August.
As the film continues, the paths of the main characters cross and converge. In one notable scene, Cliff picks up a young hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley), and drives her home to the infamous Spahn Ranch, where Manson and his "family" dwell, not taking a liking to the hippie crowd, who, in turn, show disdain for the swaggering, combative stuntman, who hightails it before really taking in the tenor of the place.
As Rick continues to flounder, ignoring, for the time, the entreaties of an elderly producer (Al Pacino), who wants him to star in a spaghetti Western over in Italy, the film's tension increases. For a director who usually delights in twisted, disjointed timelines, Tarantino here stays strictly chronologic (albeit with numerous flashbacks to Rick's TV heyday), beginning in early February and coming to the fateful date in August, when the murders took place. After Rick and Cliff return from Europe, with Rick's new Italian wife, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo), in tow, the eve of the murders is suddenly upon us.
There is no surprise at Tarantino's chosen milieu: The film revels in the detritus of the era, beyond the cars -- Cliff drives Rick's Coup De Ville with authority -- and fashion -- Polanski goes out with his wife one night wearing the crushed velour suit and ruffles Austin Powers used to favor -- there's the cupboards stocked with Velveeta, Hi-C, Nestle's Quik and Wonder Bread, oil cans of beer, with copies of Mad Magazine and TV Guide strewn on everyone's coffee tables, and one scene in which the camera lovingly records Cliff mixing himself up a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese and eating it out of the pan with a wooden spoon.
As with all Tarantino films, it's also a vehicle for many of his own personal chinchillas -- twice, women prop their bare feet up in front of the camera -- along with a whoosh of pop-culture ephemera, from FM radio DJs pumping out the songs, to commercials, films, TV, books and music of the era (Robbie's Tate is going through a significant Paul Revere phase).
He also gets to shoot facsimiles of some of his old Hollywood heroes -- particularly with a series of cameos by Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), who shares a fun scene with Cliff as the two spar on the set -- reality and fantasy entwine inside the close-knit community of Hollywood, and the stars' proximity to each other. TV shows abound, from the fictitious Bounty Law to real episodes of The FBI. (considered appointment television at the time, it would seem), and films clustered together -- including Tate's own The Wrecking Crew, which she stars in alongside an aging Dean Martin (notably, Tarantino opts to show the actual footage of Tate, not shoehorn Robbie in digitally).
But even with all Tarantino's unbridled love of the era of muscle cars, copious cigarettes, and boozy stars hanging out together, there is also a measured restraint that feels downright mature: The director has long had a tendency to fall voluminously in love with his characters, staging extended dialogues between them just for the joy of seeing the back-and-forth interplay. Even when the dialogue is clever (generally), those scenes can grind the film to a halt, holding the brake down on the drive of the narrative, which often feels like an indulgence.
Here, he keeps the pace churning along, eschewing his penchant for start/stopping, and as a result, the film has a fast, warm flow, like melted wax slipping down a greased candlestick. This expedited vibe helps connect better with the characters -- Cliff, ostensibly Tarantino's stand-in Steve McQueen character (a point he highlights by giving us a few scenes of the gritty actor himself played by Damian Lewis, in an inspired bit of casting), is a man generally content to limit his vocabulary. He's all physicality and swagger, and doesn't need any sort of verbosity beyond the few click-clicks he gives his dog, Brandy, to let her know when to attack and when to stay on the couch.
It's also an unexpected joy to watch the nonchalant swagger of Pitt match up with DiCaprio's more high-strung ministrations. Two of the biggest film stars alive playing mostly washed up TV actors may stack the irony, but both of them settle in so well into their characters, you can't help but admire the result. Rick is a dude whose ego has gone from tumescent to shriveled -- he parks his car miserably in front of one of his own old movie posters -- but beneath all his hubris and despair, he actually has a lot of talent. As always, it's pure joy to watch Pitt smoke up a screen, a middle-aged Redford speaking every line with a sinfully breezy smile, whose confidence extends around him like the golden hue of his deep suntan.
In many ways, the film works both as homage and fairy tale. Tarantino takes what Joan Didion once famously referred to as the day many of her friends believed the '60s ended, and turns it into a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasia, a what-if that sets in motion the possibility for a much warmer and more harmonious world -- even as we realize the how deeply the opposite is true.
It's a similar trick to the one he pulled off in Inglourious Basterds, beginning with a historic reference, and re-imagining it in a much more satisfying way. But unlike that film, and many of his others, you get the sense that Tarantino, who in 1969 was a precocious 6-year-old, vacuuming up all the pop culture around him like a particularly powerful Hoover, is actually rewriting a part of history that personally affected him.
You can picture him as a young boy, reading about the grisly chaos of the Manson murders, lying terrified under his blanket, and imagining a way all of this could simply not have happened. That an era built on trust, openness, and self-expression didn't get murdered along with Sharon Tate and her friends; that somehow, things turned out OK after all, and the spirit of the era continued on toward an ever-more open and progressive society. Would that have only been the case.
MovieStyle on 07/26/2019
Print Headline: Class act of '69: 'Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood' is Tarantino’s homage to his Southern California youth