Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
A film that boldly makes its own rules while revisiting a dark moment from half a century ago, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood lands strong on initial impact and feels destined to improve with age.
Arguably the writer/director’s most dialogue-heavy and least action-based work thus far — at least until action triumphantly takes over in the final act and shoves dialogue aside — the 1969-set tale of struggling TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stuntman-turned-assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and their fateful intersection with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) makes expert use of modern cinema’s biggest stars in a landscape fitting of their talents and charisma.
Clips from Rick’s large and small-screen acting — impeccably crafted by the encyclopedic pop-culture-loving mind behind the camera — fit smoothly between conversations with influential industry figures who seek to help advance his flagging career, among them a surprisingly underused yet nonetheless enjoyable Al Pacino as his agent, Marvin Schwarz.
Bolstered by a refreshing self-doubt rarely depicted by DiCaprio, Rick’s doings find comedic contrast with Cliff’s day-to-day grunt work, necessary employment after an especially entertaining flashback involving an overconfident Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).
Happening just up the hill from Rick’s Cielo Drive house, yet seemingly in another world, is the glamorous existence of Tate and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), one that includes star-studded parties at the Playboy Mansion, carefree dancing to pop songs, and gauging a random audience’s take on the actress’ work in The Wrecking Crew, footage from which Tarantino tastefully leaves undoctored.
Likewise otherworldly, though tragically all too terrestrial, is the Manson Family, whose ominous specter looms over Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood even before the cult’s ragamuffin young women’s eerie dumpster-diving introduction set to their leader’s “"I'll Never Say Never To Always,” one of the film’s many inspired musical choices.
Though Charlie (Damon Herriman) himself is barely onscreen, his influence is strongly felt during a borderline overlong yet thoroughly tense stretch at the Spahn Movie Ranch, where Cliff drops off would-be temptress Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and takes a brave, vastly outnumbered stand — encouraging possibly Pitt’s coolest acting of his illustrious career — against the dirty hippies.
And while perhaps not in the anticipated way, Manson’s acolytes naturally play a major part in the film’s inevitable climax, an optimistic rewriting of known events that makes the film unlikely blood brothers with Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, albeit via a historical remix that comes at the cost of great violence toward what many would label deserving victims.
Tarantino balances it all with a palpable affinity for the era, its nostalgic televised and cinematic products— be they comedically dated or legitimately crackerjack — and the real-life people who infused it with an energy that resonates 50 years later.
In full command of his ever-improving filmmaking gifts, the director doles out breathtaking crane shots, backseat ride-alongs, and an extended on-set sequence with Rick and his leading man co-star James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) that’s an automatic Scene of the Year finalist.
Considering how far he’s come as a storyteller, technician, and champion of movie history, it would be a shame if, as Tarantino claims, he only has one more film left.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark, and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo by Andrew Cooper)