Ironically, decisively, beautifully, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood finds its footing in the unbalanced. On the one side, a rapidly fading TV star feels his career toppling over; while on the other, one house over, a wide-eyed up-and-comer has no perception of what may soon cease to be. Ghastly events would forever mark 1969 Los Angeles – painstakingly recreated to the finest detail here – as the time and place of a shift, for better or worse. And Quentin Tarantino, the crafty auteur whose poise alone has allowed him to tamper with the past, has imposed his storytelling spells upon it to create his most intimate, thoughtful, and perhaps hopeful work to date.
That may come as a surprise, given that nearly every basic aspect of this film points towards gruesomeness. Not only is there the horrid nature of the Manson Family’s crimes to consider, but there’s also fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski’s proximity to the plot, as well as QT’s ordinarily extreme tendencies. It’s not as if the Django Unchained director’s known for his graceful approach when depicting delicate subject matter. No, images of a cliched bull in a china shop are more what come to mind. But Tarantino dodges nearly every avenue for bad taste by keeping Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) largely out of focus.
Glistening on the screen instead is the buddy story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), evermore empowered by the translucent chemistry shared between their portrayers. Dalton, who’s taken refuge as the stand-in heel for fresh-faced actors to stomp on, struggles to grasp the realities of his situation – despite the warnings and advice offered by talent agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino, having a lot of fun). And Booth, who’s more of a chauffeur and confidant by the time we meet him, still calls himself Rick’s stunt double. Their glory days at the top of the charts ended long ago, but as is often the fate of many television personalities, their past successes dictate their present failures.
And as such, the film spends a great deal of time showing us the particulars of their loser lives. In addition to being among the director’s funniest project, Once Upon a Time is also one of his more character-based. In that spirit, it can be better likened to Jackie Brown than Inglorious Basterds (which pops up in the form of an Easter egg here).
DiCaprio scores big laughs trying to disguise Rick’s woes, which have been translated, for the most part, into drinking binges, long nights, and long mornings. And Pitt, who grabs hold of the film and never lets go, seals the duo’s fate among the most enjoyable screen teams a la Newman and Redford, bringing us an alternatively but equally despondent personality. Both deliver hilarious and emotionally complex performances, wrapped together and set ablaze on another one of the director’s resolutely slow burns.
Once Upon a Time is equally unhurried in its depiction of, well, Hollywood. Tarantino lets the camera linger over his neon-charged setting, allowing his audience every opportunity to take a smooth drag of everything’s he’s tried to preserve. Beyond the grand number of wallpaper movie posters, we’re also given small glimpses at some of the well-known faces of the time: most notably Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) and Bruce Lee (a winning Mike Moh). But it’s the filled-up drive-ins, the ravishing cars, the big billboards and the glittering marquees, all beautifully captured (kudos to master DoP Robert Richardson), that make up QT’s not-too-subtle excuse to diddle-daddle around in a bygone, but obviously beloved era.
Whenever the film – at an astonishing 161 minutes – begins to feel too slow, a quick flash at the circling horrors jolts our intrigue once again. One Manson girl in particular, Pussycat (a remarkable Margaret Qualley), never strays too far away from our worried glimpse. And the impending incidents are made all the more bitter by every scene featuring Tate. Perfectly capturing the radiant and exciting way-of-being that the young actress’ death marked the end of, Robbie’s free-spirited, wide-eyed enthusiasm at everything happening around her is contagious. And with Dalton right next door on Cielo Drive, the experience of observing two careers wash down two very different drains is exhilarating.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is how it’s captured a typically untamed auteur in a period of reflection. Among his more tranquil productions, the body-mangling rituals of his signature style as well as those which define its setting take the back seat – though are far from absent – to Tarantino’s other priorities: filmmaking and yes, foot fetishizing. Who knows if this will actually be his last? Or second to last? But if it is, I can’t imagine there being a more appropriate finale to this treasured, wildly imaginative career.
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is a wistful fantasy fueled by a series of top-grade performances, a stampeding collage of Tarantino-isms, and of course, a happy slathering of movie magic.