Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is a triumph of production design (courtesy of Barbara Ling): every little detail has been given lavish attention in order to transport the viewer back to Los Angeles circa 1969. Both the Golden Age of Hollywood and the counter-culture were in the process of crashing and burning, their participants either desperately trying to hold onto the person nearest them or switch from one aesthetic to the other in a bid for relevancy. Tarantino’s film vividly captures both the beauty and squalor of it all, from the lavish homes on the infamous Cielo Drive to the dusty decrepitude of the now equally notorious Spahn Ranch.
If you recognize those two locations, you know where this is going: Tarantino has hitched his nostalgic, evocative fantasia to the brutal, real-life Aug. 9, 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and four others by members of the cult led by Charles Manson. But before we even get to that, the core of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the relationship between a once popular and now fading actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/handyman/driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), both aging out of the Hollywood scene and unsure of their future.
Booth and Dalton are reflective of Hollywood’s past: men’s men who don’t know where they fit in the changing times, while Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is less a real person and more an idealized distillation of the optimism, hope, and radiance of youth — a literally radiant spirit of love, peace, and innocence that was crushed so brutally by the Manson murders and the other societal events that massively changed the tenor of the country and the times in a few short years. Over the course of two days, six months apart, the paths of Rick, Cliff, Sharon, and others — including other real-life Hollywood actors, the “dirty hippies” of the Manson clan, and more –will intersect in potentially life-changing ways.
Sounds like a hell of a picture, right? And for some of its hefty 160-minute running time, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does touch on greatness. But since this is a Tarantino joint, and he is intent on getting everything he can onto the screen with no editing and no filter (which last resulted in possibly his worst film, The Hateful Eight), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never quite coalesces into the moving, acidly funny, and bittersweet elegy to a vanished era that Tarantino could have made. Instead, we get a rambling, unfocused, occasionally scintillating would-be epic that the director inevitably soaks in his own particular brand of excessive bloodshed.
Tarantino has become less interested in modern cinematic pacing as the years have gone by and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood only re-emphasizes that. Scenes go on for a long time, but what continues to be impressive about Tarantino’s work is that there are stretches where you don’t mind. A lot of that is thanks to his spectacular cast. The MVP here is Pitt, giving his best performance in years: his Booth has his regrets and is uneasy about his prospects, but he also keeps his composure, his common sense, and his moral compass (even if his career was waylaid by nasty rumors about his wife’s death).
Booth is the anchor for Dalton, whose insecurities, alcoholism and low-level narcissism are expertly handled by DiCaprio. Dalton’s career peaked eight years ago with his series Bounty Law, and now he’s grasping at whatever he can, playing guest villains on other shows and mulling an offer from a producer (Al Pacino, right out of central casting in a brief appearance) to fly overseas and star in a series of Spaghetti Westerns. Unable to drive after getting his license suspended for a DUI, Dalton relies on Booth to ferry him around, make repairs at his house, and generally keep his life from devolving into the complete mess it could easily become.
Their relationship and their dogged loyalty to an industry that is slowly closing its doors on them is the heart of the movie. It is also genuinely touching in its own way, as is Robbie’s portrayal of Tate. For Tarantino, Tate represents an innocence about show business that is best realized in a scene where Tate ducks into the Bruin Theater in Westwood to watch The Wrecking Crew, in which she appears alongside Dean Martin’s James Bond knockoff Matt Helm. Listening and looking around at the audience as they laugh and respond to her performance, Robbie makes Tate’s delight palpable and heartfelt — the sheer, unfiltered joy of making movies (for perhaps the director as well) captured in her dazzling smile.
Scenes like this and others scattered across the film, many of them involving Pitt, offer the pleasures that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood intermittently provides. But as seems to be more and more the case, Tarantino is so in love with his own dialogue, his loving recreations/creations of real and fictional TV shows, and movies from the era (right down to the spot-on commercials) and his homages to icons of old Hollywood that he forgets to weave it all together in the same elegant, skillful way that makes his best work (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds) shine. He even needs Kurt Russell (who also plays a stunt supervisor in the film) to step in and narrate several sections.
So when the violence does come — less of it than in any previous QT film for sure, but the same garish, over-the-top, cartoonishly gruesome carnage that you never know whether to laugh or wince at, particularly when women are involved — it feels tonally more out of nowhere than just about any similar scene from the director’s previous films. It is also, as a result, more jarring and gratuitous. There are spoilers here that we can’t go into for now, but suffice to say that the third act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels almost like a different and less accomplished film.
But that is now the Tarantino way, it seems: all his considerable talent, not to mention that of his cast and crew (and we can go on and on with kudos for DP Robert Richardson, costume designer Arianna Phillips, and music supervisor Mary Ramos, among others), can deliver glimpses of superior filmmaking that bump up against the director’s own worst impulses. Although there seems to be a theme to the movie, perhaps Tarantino’s most personal yet in many ways, one leaves the theater wondering exactly what the point was. Once upon a time with a Tarantino film, it wasn’t so hard to tell.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out in theaters Friday (July 26).