2 Hrs., 40 Mins.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood July 29, 2019
hen it was first confirmed that Quentin Tarantino’s new and supposedly penultimate movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was going to take place in 1969 and include cult leader Charles Manson, his acolytes, and the tragic actress Sharon Tate in the ensemble, it was easy to get a little worried. This might not have been the first time Tarantino was refurbishing history to his liking. His
Inglourious Basterds (2009) traversed various Nazi-occupied locales at the height of World War II, and put a handful of infamous historical figures in the cast. Django Unchained (2012) was set in 1850s America and spent much time at an operatically vile slave-owner's plantation. Tact wasn't a part of their makeup. Inglourious Basterds climactically reimagined how the genocidal Adolf Hitler and his lackeys died. (They were killed violently, Tarantino decided, in a movie theater caught up in a deluge of fire and machine-gun bullets at a propaganda-film premiere, thanks to a carefully mapped-out conspiracy.) Django Unchained was a revenge thriller driven by slavery. Neither film, thankfully, was an exercise in poor taste — Tarantino is a provocateur, but not one eager to offend like, say, John Waters — but unease is not unheard of when a director is fashioning pulp fantasies from the threads of particularly horrific historical moments, playing with real-life people like Barbie dolls.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood initially made us fear the worst. Even if Tarantino wasn’t recreating the Manson murders full stop, how would Tate and co. make their way into the film’s fabric in ways that didn’t feel cheap, hasty, exploitative? It turns out that Manson, his “family,” and his victims are simultaneously ancillary and crucial to the resulting movie, and are not too egregiously distorted for Tarantino’s amusement. Their presence feels, for the most part, just right. They’re as much a part of the wallpaper as they are a part of the foundation and rafters of the feature, which is a shaded and frequently sublime revisionist comic drama that is, among other things, about aging and its fraught relationship with the entertainment industry.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in an alternate timeline, where billboards and radio ads are accurate to what they were 50 years ago but where careers and existences of certain star personalities fork. The movie will feature an eerily true-to-the-times marquee advertising Pendulum, a long-forgotten Jean Seberg vehicle, for instance, but it will also put a spotlight on fictional wash-ups and never-weres who bumped elbows with everyone from Bruce Lee to celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring. This movie’s mains are categorical has-beens. One is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV star who hasn't done anything meaty since the television Western he headlined a decade ago. The other is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his too-pretty-to-be-a-stunt-double stunt double, chauffeur, and best friend.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's first couple of acts cover a few days in Rick's and Cliff's lives. Neither person, at the moment, is at their peak. Rick is in professional purgatory. He famously departed the series that made him famous for a film career, but the latter ambition never panned out. For years now, he’s been playing one-episode-only villains on everything from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-’68) to The Girl from U.N.C.L.E (1966-’67). As his agent, the burly, no-nonsense Marvin (Al Pacino), tells him over a bloody Mary at lunch one afternoon, he needs to start thinking about reconsidering his trajectory. Play the bad guy enough times and the audience begins to turn “Rick Dalton” into a synonym for “loser” — something you don’t want when your career is already flagging. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we see Rick shoot an episode of Lancer, which ran in real life from 1968 to 1970. Naturally, he’s the antagonist in this week’s episode. He flubs a couple of his lines, but his experience and at least a fragment of his confidence are salvaged when an 8-year-old “actor not actress” (Julia Butters) guest-starring with him tells him that he’s doing some of the best performing she’s seen.
With Rick struggling to find meaningful work, that means that Cliff, once one of the best in his class, is floundering too. It doesn’t help that most people who might hire him are convinced that he killed his wife (Rebecca Gayheart) on their boat a while back — something that remains ambiguous to us. These days, when not on sets with Rick, Cliff might shirtlessly repair his boss/friend's roof and think about the old days, or unthinkingly drive Manson girls to newly (and badly) repurposed former movie-making Babylons named Spahn Ranch to pass the time.
Rick has little hope that a powerful pick-me-up will come his way anytime soon. But he can’t help but be a little excited about his new neighbors, hottest-director-alive Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his inchoate actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Maybe they’ll all get along; maybe Polanski, who’s just made Rosemary’s Baby (1968), will give Rick a part. But who knows. Polanski is around so sporadically lately that the freshly pregnant Sharon, who gets parts often enough if not regularly, decides one afternoon that it would be fun to see her new movie, spy flick The Wrecking Crew (1968), in theaters out of boredom.
nce Upon a Time in Hollywood is so aswarm with references that it at times feels like a game of Trivial Pursuit. Tarantino is scarily if unsurprisingly attentive to his allusions; any pop-cultural filigree offered is hyper-specific and catered toward the obscure. That's always been something that unabashedly delights Tarantino: to give new life to forgotten artifacts and time markers.
When his characters drive around Los Angeles — which they do often — we may hear an ad for a new Virna Lisi movie or Heaven Scent perfume play on the radio. The show Rick used to headline back in the day is fittingly the sort of throwaway Western no one can remember or probably even access in 2019; it's characteristic that Tarantino then have Rick guest on a two-seasoner like Lancer rather than Bonanza (1959-1973) or Gunsmoke (1955-1975). The soundtrack favors Paul Revere & the Raiders over the Doors; Tarantino makes sure that we notice that, on a marquee advertising the Frank Sinatra movie Lady in Cement, co-star Raquel Welch's name is spelled like "Racquel Welch." Part of the fun of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is seeing how far down the rabbit hole he’ll go, then how he'll tweak the inner-workings of that rabbit hole.
All of this isn't nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, though: references are the tools with which he world-builds. If only to showcase what was most remembered about 1969 — specifically things from February, 1969, then, for the film’s final act, August, 1969 — then we likely wouldn’t feel like we were actually living in 1969. Granted, Tarantino’s rendering of the year is a more rose-colored version; if to choose between living inside his imagining and the real 1969, I'd go with the former. Romanticism notwithstanding, what Tarantino does here is so immersive that it helps crystallize the atmosphere he's going for: one distinguished for its melancholy, sense of transition.
Transition is rife in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; that 1969 is by nature a transitional year is just a cherry on top of Tarantino's sundae. There’s a tide-shift created by the emphasis on Rick and Cliff, who’re embodiments of the way Hollywood used to function, and the newfound inescapability of people like Polanski, Tate, and transitorily noted figures like actor Steve McQueen and Mamas & the Papas member Michelle Phillips (here played, respectively, by Damian Lewis and Rebecca Rittenhouse). By 1969, a star personality like Rick might have appeared out-of-place, old-fashioned in comparison to someone as abidingly intriguing as McQueen. Rick can't stand the hippies who now stalk the streets of Los Angeles; he hates the hipness Hollywood seems to be moving toward. Tarantino can't help himself from even including a documentary-like sequence in which antiquated movie-houses are replaced by Cineramas.
Makes sense that Tarantino make this agitated a movie now: In interviews, Tarantino has frequently said that he’ll only make one more movie after his ninth, knowing how rare it is for directors to continue making quote-unquote great movies into old age. Despite clearly being in command of his sensibilities, Tarantino still cannot escape the sensation of feeling out of place, cognizant of quickly evolving cultural tastes.
The casting further solidifies the anxious, transitional tenor. There’s a lot of nepotism in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Maya Hawke, the lookalike daughter of Ethan Hawke and Tarantino muse Uma Thurman, appears as Linda Kasabian. Andie MacDowell, A-lister of the late-1980s and most of the ‘90s, is the mother of Margaret Qualley, who plays Pussycat, the Manson girl who gets the most screen time of any of her cult affiliates in the film. Rumer Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, appears as Sharon Tate’s sister. Kevin Smith’s daughter, the goofily named Harley Quinn, is one of the many women living at Spahn Ranch. We know that Tarantino hasn’t cast these people because he wants to do their parents a favor, though: he’s cast them, probably, to further elicit a sense of replacement — that room now cannot be made for their parents with the same level of once-strong urgency. They don’t quite have as much cultural capital as they used to.
Elsewhere, the casting complements the overhanging idea of parallel universes, alternate timelines. Robbie is too an exciting young star like Tate once was; would the latter have been able to evolve into a Robbie type had she lived? DiCaprio and Pitt, though not facing lows approximate to their characters, are also in new stages of their careers. Rick and Cliff as much bring what-if scenarios for both of them to the fore as they do refract biographical details. Tarantino couldn't have done this unintentionally. DiCaprio, weathered and bulkier than he was even half a decade ago, is a far cry from his rakish and dewy-skinned young self, who still follows him around pop-culturally. Having not appeared in a film since 2015’s precarious and desperate The Revenant, for which he won his first leading actor Oscar, he, like Rick, now seems ever-aware of the hazards of a career misstep. His widely mocked habit of dating women younger than 25 suggests discomfort with settling down, recognizing the reality of aging. (In the movie, a big part of his character arc involves a doomed-to-fail romantic relationship with a younger woman; he meets her while making a few Spaghetti Westerns in Italy.)
The persona of Pitt, like Cliff, is flavored, in part, by the turbulence of his domestic life. You cannot invoke the actor without also thinking of his legendarily acrimonious divorces. He still has an impenetrable self-possession and has maintained his hyper-symmetrical, sunny beauty — in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, painted-on bodily scars only seem to enhance it — but there’s a corporeal weariness sitting underneath it.
The movie kindles some of the best work from these actors. Robbie captures the levity and drive of Tate, who had, based on the accounts of those who knew her, a staggering warmth and humility to her — a rare tendency to look for the good in people. DiCaprio metabolizes and makes visible Rick’s angst about where he’s heading in life. Pitt, frequently funny in the film, encapsulates a hard-to-capture, numbed cool that makes Cliff a memorably cryptic sidekick. It feels right that these performers are taking on these roles now.
if it did eventually even out. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn lamented that “the payoff is rushed, counterproductive, and ultimately beside the point.”
There are essentially two endings in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. One of them boldly changes the setting of the violence that took place at the end of Cielo Drive between the 8th and 9th of August. The other reimagines the 9th as concluding happily. The first ending I’m not so fond of. Loudly bloody in a way that feels excessive even by Tarantino’s standards, it’s jarring to the point that it threatens to override the big, time-taking payoffs of what preceded it. I think my dislike was also exacerbated by the audience at the screening I attended, which freaked me out in how giddily it received brutal violence. What causes people to laugh when someone on the screen is getting their face bashed into hard surfaces in close up, getting chewed on by a dog, again in close up, even if the beaten-down person is textbook evil?
The second one is better but is perhaps too bullishly cheerful for its own good. One of the things I like best about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is how compassionately it attempts to appreciate Sharon Tate for who she might have been; for so long has she been murder victim first, inviting and promising artist next. Among the movie’s finest scenes is when we see Robbie-as-Tate go to the movies to watch herself (the real-life Tate on screen) in The Wrecking Crew, which ensured each one of my laughs be followed by a twitch of sadness. But — spoiler alert — it’s misguided that Tarantino ultimately decide to “save” her. The film’s audacity is admirable and inspired more than it isn’t, but in this case it goes a note-or-two too far. Tate wasn't lucky enough to get the second chance Tarantino gives her here.
I also can’t think of a Tarantino movie that doesn’t have at least one scene, or, at least one decision, that might be deemed an example of him “going too far.” Tarantino possesses the kind of directorial passion that tends to bubble over from time to time. We can forgive him for the imperfections because, in other places, he’ll achieve something uncommonly close to perfection. To be sure, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among his most esoteric projects. The protuberant references, while being catnip for those who share strains of his obsession with cinema and TV history, will leave many confused, left in the cold. The ambling nature of its first two hours is en route to being divisive; the movie has often been described as a “hangout movie,” but even that cannot prepare viewers for how much the film feels as though it’s wandering — promenading in Los Angeles with the blissful purposeless of windowshopping.
Still, I felt affection and sometimes even love for most of what Tarantino does here; it’s his most purposeful, wonderfully character-studyish movie since his best film, 1997’s Jackie Brown. But it’s almost a given that Tarantino’s latest reinvention, paired with recent controversies, leaves him with a fate much like Rick Dalton’s. Where will he go next? Not everyone is going to be so keen on looking forward. A
any critics have taken issue with the film’s last act. “The movie’s tone shifts drastically during the finale, a sequence marked by ruthless, cartoonishly orchestrated violence — somehow it doesn’t fit, almost jolting the picture out of whack,” said Time critic Stephanie Zacharek in an otherwise enthusiastic review. Hannah Woodhead, of Little White Lies, noted that it borderlines on self-parody, even