I want to live in the idyllic 1969 that Quentin Tarantino glorifies in his stylish and surprisingly personal Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s a time of great upheaval in the country, but here, in this place of cinematic gods and goddesses, the glamour, the magic, it’s as captivating as ever. Being there, and charmed by Hollywood’s spell, is something Tarantino captures with the giddy enthusiasm we’ve come to expect from him, and if he’s truly wrapping up his career with one more movie, then this is going to rank right up there among his finest.
In a way, I would’ve thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would be his finale, because it’s just such a Tarantino movie. A callback to an era he clearly loves, it’s also a walkthrough of the many genres he’s tackled throughout his career. Western, war, crime, even kung-fu all get their due, while Tarantino dabbles in something resembling horror during the final act. But at its heart, this is a movie about the end of the golden era of Hollywood, reflected in washed-up TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and real-life actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Together, Dalton, Booth, and Tate represent three facets of the Hollywood mystique: the former star on the downturn of his career; the guy just happy to make others famous; and the wide-eyed innocent in the bloom of her stardom. Tarantino views this era, and these three people in particular, with rose-colored glasses. His Hollywood is a place where there’s never a cloud in the sky, the cars are loud and fast, the night sky radiates with the glow from movie theaters far and wide, and the music is constant. Rarely a moment goes by that music isn’t playing somewhere; and when it stops…well, that’s when something bad is about to happen. This era is about to get a ferocious, bloody wake up call by the Manson Family (Manson is played by Matt Smith, with Margaret Qualley and Dakota Fanning among his followers), who usher in a darker period.
First, however, we have Dalton, with Tarantino taking long stretches to explore his time as star of the hit TV western, Bounty Law. It made him a star and a household name, but that’s over and now he’s reduced to bit parts playing the “heavy” in TV shows led by other, younger actors. There’s a brilliant summation of Dalton’s career by a producer played by Al Pacino, in which he explains how the studios are burying Dalton in favor of others. Later, we get extensive walkthroughs of Dalton’s appearances on the TV shows Lancer (with Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy) and FBI. The first chapter is also a little bit like Tarantino’s version of a buddy film, with Booth is the cool, unflappable wingman to Dalton’s insecure celeb. There’s a great sequence on the set of The Green Hornet where Booth challenges Bruce Lee (played expertly by Mike Moh) to a fight, giving Tarantino a chance to indulge his kung-fu cravings for the first time since Kill Bill.
While the Manson stuff is lurking in the background, this movie isn’t really about them. They do play a major role in the second act as Booth investigates the ranch owned by half-blind George Spahn (played by Bruce Dern, previously meant for Burt Reynolds), but if you’re expecting a deep dive into their Helter Skelter world this is the wrong place. The same goes for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. She may be all over the billboards but Robbie is very much a supporting player in this. Those expecting a Tate biopic are going to be disappointed. She’s meant to represent something pure and innocent about Hollywood, when being famous wasn’t something anybody with a YouTube account could. It took talent, looks, and a lot of luck. Tate was one of the fortunate few, and in the scenes we get with her we glimpse her appreciation of that fact.
This is, unquestionably, a movie for DiCaprio and Pitt. As Hollywood royalty it’s funny to watch them play actors barely keeping it together in an ever-shifting show business landscape. Tarantino creates such vividly detailed, specific characters and he’s got two actors who can deliver on all of their quirks. DiCaprio gets to show his humor and heart in the uncertain and stuttering Dalton, who needs help from a child actress (Julia Butters, fantastic) to learn how to act method. Meanwhile, Booth is always cool under pressure, with Pitt’s devil-may-care performance a nice tease of the stuntman’s dark side.
The language isn’t as salty, but the Tarantino violence is still at a peak. Sure, it really only comes in a few scenes, one of which in a terrific Inglourious Basterds-esque moment involving a flamethrower and a bunch of Nazis, but it’s bound to rub a few the wrong way. The flippant way Tarantino approaches violence towards women is a little uncomfortable because it’s excessive for no apparent reason other than shock value.
As if perfectly attuned to the era it depicts, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a gloriously breezy ride that’s even better if you’re as hip to this stuff as Tarantino is. Of course, few people have Tarantino’s depth of knowledge and appreciation, which is why he clearly had so much fun making this movie. It’s hard to imagine him ever wanting to retire, because I feel like once he’s done nobody else will be making movies like this anymore and that is just too sad a thought to consider.