The highest praise I can give to “The Ninth Film From Quentin Tarantino” is that it’s the first movie in years that I’ve immediately decided I wanted – nay, needed – to watch again, as soon as possible. Hypnotically immersive to the nth degree, it’s a lovingly realized slice of alternative history that perfectly evokes in spectacularly granular detail a seemingly timeless moment in yesteryear Tinseltown. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fractured fairy tale too good to be true, because the truth hurts; and Tarantino, forever lovesick with and impassioned by this particular Los Angelean era, has better things in store than a mere reimagining of events surrounding the gated compound at 10050 Cielo Drive and the Spahn Movie Ranch. Firmly rooted in the Tarantinoverse, Once Upon a Time is an elegiac mash note to Hollywood 1969, at times sublimely, almost surrealistically moving while simultaneously managing to be the director’s funniest and least violent film to date.
As is usual for a QT film, there are multiple parallel storylines at play, intersecting and ricocheting off each other like a billiards table awash in eight-balls. First and foremost are best buddies Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton’s an aging and alcoholic B-movie cowboy looking down the barrel of an unfulfilling future filming Sergio Corbucci-helmed spaghetti Westerns in Almería, Spain, to pay the bills.
Booth is his tough-as-nails stunt double, driver, and all-around compadre-cum-enabler. The pair saunter through L.A. in full-on leisure mode, encountering various famous names, among them newly arrived next-door neighbors Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her sparsely glimpsed husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), Green Hornet star Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), and those creepy hippies hanging out at the Spahn Ranch, chief among them the libidinous Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and Tex (Austin Butler). Cinematographer Robert Richardson bathes everything in a honeyed, hyper-real glow that nonetheless allows room for the seepage of creepy-crawling darkness into the story’s explosive and horrifically comical finale.
Pitt and DiCaprio are perfectly cast. They come off as a lower-rent version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-era Redford and Newman, all laconically snappy patented QT dialogue, Red Apple cigarettes, and booze-fueled late-night bullshit sessions.
Yet it’s Robbie’s Tate that makes the blood-red sun shine throughout. Midway through Tarantino’s lengthy (fittingly so) fairy tale, there’s a stunning little sequence of Tate wandering into a theatre to watch herself onscreen alongside Dean Martin as Matt Helm in 1968’s The Wrecking Crew.
Slipping off her pristine white go-go boots and putting her bare feet up on the seat in front of her, she positively glows in the dark as she anonymously basks in the reactions of her fellow moviegoers. It’s a beautifully staged and acted sequence in a movie that’s overflowing with adoration for not only the comedically gifted Tate – what could have been, what should have been – but also for the very notion of late-1960s Hollywood and indeed cinema itself.
Some critics have griped about Once Upon a Time’s near-three-hour running time, but I disagree. Tarantino’s deliberately unhurried pacing defines the exact (and, sadly, nearly extinct) pleasures of 35mm filmmaking, the relaxed yet portentously suspenseful feeling of the beginning of the end of something golden and the emergence of something else rising to usurp the sunshine and sparkle of the already rickety Hollywood signage.
Innocence lost? Not so. It’s more like fear and loving in Los Angeles, all wrapped up in Tarantino’s extraordinary and unmistakable auteurist style. Now that’s entertainment.
ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD ( 3½ ) Directed by Quentin Tarantino • Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Rafal Zawierucha, Damon Herriman, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant • Rated R • 161 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Century Marina, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas