Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, is actually two stories. On the one hand, you have the odd couple of Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt‘s Cliff Booth. Dalton, an actor who’s seen better days, left his TV hit to make movies and has struggled ever since. Booth is his stunt double, driver, impromptu therapist and best friend. On the other hand, you have Dalton’s new neighbors: director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate.
Similar to what he did in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino reinvents history here, imagining an alternate version of 1969 Hollywood in which Dalton lives next door to Tate on Cielo Drive, where the actress and three of her friends were famously murdered by the Charles Manson family.
I was all in for the stylish homage to Hollywood’s golden age. I just wish it didn’t also have to be a horrific real crime with the full-on, blood-spattering Tarantino treatment.
I should say up front that I’ve never been a Quentin Tarantino fan. I found both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction violent and uncomfortable to watch. Watching Kill Bill: Vol. 1, I wanted to leave the theater because I was disgusted by all the blood and explicit acts of violence against women. I never bothered with Vol. 2. I’m among those who think Tarantino’s time may have passed and never understood why he was so revered.
So I was ready to hate Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In fact, I liked it, though I have some quibbles. Not the least of them is that at 161 minutes, the film would have benefitted from being shorter and tighter. Basically one movie instead of two.
There’s already a lot going on in a film with two very strong leads. One (DiCaprio) is going through quite the midlife crisis. The other (Pitt) is just trying to scrape by. On top of that, you have an ensemble with so many famous names it’s hard to recall them all. We’re talking the likes of Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Rumer Willis, Bruce Dern, Scoot McNairy and Lena Dunham.
With so many characters popping up, Margot Robbie doesn’t really have much to do as Sharon Tate other than stand there with perfect blond hair and exquisitely sculpted legs. She’s flawless throughout the whole movie, with one exception. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino lets everyone know that even gorgeous women snore.
Actress Margaret Qualley gets a similar superficial treatment. She plays Pussycat, a member of the Charles Manson family with a penchant for hitchhiking and flirting. She has a scene with Pitt’s character that is quite cringe-inducing. Not only because she looks like a teenager and he’s well into his fifties, but because at one point she offers him oral sex while he’s driving.
But let’s talk more about what I liked in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Longtime Los Angeles institutions (and their neon lights) make an appearance: among them, restaurants Musso & Frank Grill and El Coyote, the landmark Capitol Records and theaters Cinerama Dome, Bruin and Pantages.
Endless cameos and historic references will seduce any film and TV buff. Mike Moh plays a cocky version of Bruce Lee who says things like, “My hands are registered as lethal weapons.” Damian Lewis plays a blond-but-not-cool-enough Steve McQueen. Director Sergio Corbucci’s name is shown some reverence. There are countless references to spaghetti westerns (the title of the movie being one of them). People are glued to their TV sets to watch Three in the Attic, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The F.B.I.
Our protagonists’ pasts are re-enacted as little flashback sequences perfectly interwoven into the action, and Tarantino has a lot of fun with the format, especially with Dalton, as we get a glimpse of his work as an actor but also how it could have been. One standout sequence shows the ending of The Great Escape with DiCaprio’s Dalton playing McQueen’s character in a way that made me want to watch The Great Escape for the umpteenth time. In another sequence, we see Dalton as a performer lashing out in the funniest way because he can’t remember his lines.
Then there’s Pitt, whose cool Cliff Booth is arguably just as objectified as Robbie’s and Qualley’s characters. He has a shirtless sequence on top of a sunny roof where he doesn’t have any reason to be jealous of his very ripped and younger Fight Club self.
There’s much more to say about Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. The camera moves masterfully. The soundtrack is catchy. There’s some sort of shoe and foot fetish going on. A conversation between Dalton and a child actor is both hysterical and raw.
Be sure to go see the movie the way the director intended you to see it: in 35mm. I just hope you’re luckier than me and your theater has more than one projector, like the charming little theater I saw it in has. Otherwise, prepare yourself for a pause every hour or so as they change reels. Or just take that opportunity to stretch your legs. Did I mention this is a 161-minute movie?
Originally published July 26.