Remember when actors sold movies? Quentin Tarantino does. The director’s ninth feature–presumably his second to last– is a love poem of that era told on a magnificent scale. The time is 1969. The place is Hollywood. The heroes, a couple of actors, cast their gaze on a time-capsule panorama of Pontiacs, side burns, neon lights, bustling movie theaters and yes, classic rock. These sights and sounds are as lively as any that have ever graced the big screen. It’s just the sort of chaos we were all looking forward to seeing from the creator of “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs.”
Mr. Tarantino has his own way of changing history. “Inglorious Bastards” saw Hitler burned alive in a movie theater and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” sees Leonardo Dicaprio out of a job. But the director also has a way of changing movie history. Never has this bygone era been given such telling detail. Hollywood Boulevard has been restored to its glory days; when hippies begged for lifts, strangers gave you winks and the ocean breezes carried the groovy tunes of The Mamas and The Papas. It’s the cinematic equivalent of California dreamin.
Life is anything but a dream for actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). With the studio era fading and the blockbuster era right around the corner, that leaves these two on the cusp of being “has-been’s.” TV shows like “FBI” and “The Green Hornet” just aren’t what they used to be. And you can feel these two–and the time period–slowly burning out like a cigarette on its last puffs.
If that sounds depressing, it really isn’t. I had a blast watching the two most successful movie stars today play against type. Dicaprio playfully spoofs Burt Reynolds in an Oscar worthy role. Dalton used to be a star in the 50’s as a cowboy in “Bounty Law,” but now he’s cast as the heavy in TV pilots. Pitt brings a whole new flavor of cool to Cliff; with those squinting eyes and pressed lips, only a rumor as lethal as “wife-murderer” could leave this stuntman jobless. The two are best friends. And even if the city is leaving them behind, they never fail to stick by each other’s side. (Cliff describes Rick as “a little more than a brother and a little less than a wife.”)
On the other side of the story is a wifed-up Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). She’s pregnant with Roman Polanski’s baby, and if she’s seen his breakout hit “Rosemary’s Baby,” she has every right to be worried. She isn’t. Tarantino seems to have told Robbie to “dance around, smile, and look sexy” (it works!). Margot Robbie is a singular angel in a city full of them. What binds her story to Cliff and Ricks, though, is less optimistic.
Most of us have heard of the Manson Murders. When Charles Manson and his ruthless followers murdered Tate and four others at the Polanksi residence on Cielo Dr. In the movie version, Rick and Polanski are neighbors. If this were made, oh, say, 50 years ago, the murderous night might have come as a twist. But Tarantino effectively uses this as a means to build tension. We know the violence is coming, it’s only a matter of when.
The violence does eventually come in a scene that trades Chekhov’s gun for Chekhov’s flamethrower (don’t ask). Don’t be fooled, though.Tarantino, often criticized for style over substance, returns to his empathetic form. This time it really is about the movies. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” plays as both a fairy tale of the Hollywood of old and a turning point to the Hollywood of new. It can also be seen as a parable on how movies masquerade the truth. The way Hollywood always lets the good guys win, even if, in the case of the Tate murders and the Vietnam War, that isn’t always the case.
Whatever the case may be, this is first and foremost entertainment. While academics are destined to write treatises on the picture’s meaning, most of us will watch this for what it is: a wildly enjoyable hangout film with a second-to-none atmosphere and second-to-none star power. It vibrates with magnified life forms: Kurt Russell with a mullet; Al Pacino as a schlocky producer; Dakota Fanning as a demon-eyed Manson girl; a Bruce Lee impersonator with a lethal weapon of an ego; an eight year old actress with a Daniel-Day Lewis approach to character acting. All these characters intersect in a way only Tarantino could manage.
The whole film feels like something only Tarantino could manage. Maybe he could have managed the two hour and 45 minute run time better. That said, by the end you will wish there were more. You will wish you could hangout with Rick and Cliff just a little longer. Watching them cruise around looking for work; cracking beers and cracking jokes is what the summer movie season is all about. By the end their future may be as uncertain as the directors (will his next movie be his last?). But one thing IS for sure: no other director is going to give you a cinematic feat with so many feet!