Director-writer Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is a cocky, crazy, couldn’t-care-less hippie chick who is equal parts trouble and fun, leaning halfway into a yellow Coup de Ville at a bus
stop. It’s a crappy house-trailer next to an oil derrick behind a drive-in, where an aging golden-god stunt double feeds his pit bull raccoon- and rat-flavored dog food from cans.
It’s a stuttering, self-loathing has-been who drinks too much, has chain-smoker coughing fits, and fantasizes about how he would have played Steve McQueen’s part in “The Great Escape.” And it’s a sex symbol on the rise, using her nascent celebrity to save the cost of a 75-cent ticket by asking if she can get in free to see her own movie.
It’s Hollywood USA, with all the gritty glamour and glorious fool’s gold of circa 1969 — and never, and probably forever. It’s a fairy tale with hairy armpits and hyperviolence and enough unexpected heart to make you unsure whether to laugh or cry, or laugh and cry. It’s tongue-in-cheek, trashy, and tragic, and it’s pretty terrific.
Setting the Scene
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, former star of TV’s “Bounty Law,” now reduced to playing guest-star bad guys on other shows after a failed attempt to make it in the movies sank his series. This insecure, bitter alcoholic is still dedicated enough to his craft to run lines with himself on a tape recorder while floating in the pool of his Hollywood Hills home. That Cielo Drive house just happens to be next door to one shared by hot “Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his impossibly beautiful blonde wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whose fate at the hands of the Charles Manson clan is the stuff of Hollywood history.
Rick’s best and possibly only friend is his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth, played with California-casual cool by Brad Pitt. Driver, drinking buddy, and as-needed handyman, Cliff is a good-natured confidence-builder with a gift for going with the flow. While it’s obvious that Rick needs Cliff more than Cliff needs much of anything, the two have an obvious affection for each other that’s refreshingly genuine.
Rick goes out of his way to get Cliff stunt work from someone with zero interest in hiring him because of a past incident. And when Cliff is dispatched to fix Rick’s roof antenna, he does so with parkour-like grace instead of class resentment. Cliff’s beat-up Karmann Ghia convertible leaves a puddle of oil on Rick’s concrete driveway, but you get the feeling Rick never would complain about it.
Agent Marvin Schwarz (a genially slick Al Pacino) advises Rick to stop playing bad guys and go back to winning fights by flying to Rome, where he can work with “the second-best director of spaghetti Westerns.” The names Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood never come up, despite this movie’s title homage to two Leone films and the similarities between Rick’s and Eastwood’s careers.
’60s Hollywood Flair
Tarantino crams so many pop songs, movie references, magazine cover mock-ups, and recreated locations into this 161-minute extravaganza that the obsessively immersive period detail becomes almost overwhelming. From the Playboy Mansion, to Spahn’s Movie Ranch, to the Musso and Frank Grill, to the Bruin cinema in Westwood, this is 1960s Los Angeles in all its garish, fantasy-fueled glory.
Politics-wise, the only mentions of times-they-are-a-changin’ current events are broadcast on background radio newscasts that everyone ignores. No main cast members are people of color, as they wouldn’t say back then, although Mike Moh’s short appearance as an amusingly obnoxious Bruce Lee is a treat. When a moment of self-reflection and rejection makes Rick tear up near valets in a parking lot, Cliff compassionately consoles him by saying, “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans.”
Notably for Spike Lee and anyone else who is counting, this is one of the few Tarantino flicks without a single use of the N-word. That actually is a little strange here, considering that the real-life Manson’s intention was to instigate a race war with the Cielo Drive murders (a motivation never mentioned here).
The briefly glimpsed Manson (Damon Herriman) and what his followers eventually will do are the dark specter hanging over the film. Cliff’s serendipitous visit to their former movie-ranch compound is deliciously suspenseful and strange. The irresistible Margaret Qualley, who played Ann Reinking to perfection in the mini-series “Fosse/Verdon,” is dangerously enticing as cult member Pussycat. Dakota Fanning is certifiably nasty as Squeaky Fromme, the cult’s head kitty.
Anything Can Happen
Tarantino being Tarantino, expect some minor and major twists, one of which falls in the “jaw-dropping” variety of outrageously unforgettable. Stylistically, the movie shifts between aspect ratios, film quality, and from color to black-and-white for recreations of TV shows and films.
In addition to his on-screen role as a stunt coordinator who is no fan of Cliff, Kurt Russell also serves as occasional voice-over narrator, providing background information and setting up scenes. That sometimes comes off like an awkwardly intrusive way of telling instead of showing, but it does fit the loose, anything-can-happen vibe. And everyone speeds instead of drives, either because they think their immortality is a given, or they just don’t plan to get old.
In a movie filled with standout characters, the smallest is the biggest scene-stealer. Julia Butters is adorable as the charmingly precocious Trudi Fraser, an 8-year-old child actor (not “actress,” a term she insists is meaningless) on a TV Western in which Rick is playing the heavy.
When Rick tells her the plot of the paperback he’s reading between scenes, about a cowboy nicknamed Easy Breezy who’s not the best anymore and is becoming “slightly more useless each day,” the parallels with Rick’s life are enough to make him break down. Trudi’s sympathy for him, her assessment of his on-set performance later, and his reaction to those words are genuinely touching.
Trudi also has one of the movie’s best metaphorical lines of dialog, sweetly stating, “I always throw myself on the floor just for fun, even when I’m not being paid.” With an attitude like that, she’s sure to go far in the entertainment biz.
Expect the Unexpected
All of this takes place in a milieu of ditzy dumpster-divers, dirty-movie premieres complete with searchlights, and a first-run Dean Martin as Matt Helm franchise flick (“I play Miss Carlson, the klutz,” Sharon proudly points out). Good old-fashioned brawling triumphs over fancy martial arts. When “MacArthur Park” comes on Cliff’s tiny TV, it’s not Richard Harris but Robert Goulet singing. It’s the finest of American cheese.
The fateful finale, set to the so obvious it’s ideal “Out of Time” by The Rolling Stones, is best described as nothing you’re expecting and yet everything you should have from Tarantino. Well-deserved Oscar nominations are likely to abound.
Tarantino has implied this could be his final film, unless he really does end up making what presumably would be a very atypical “Star Trek” installment. Nobody believes him. How could anyone so obviously in love with Hollywood and all of its infinite, once-upon-a-time possibilities possibly give up show business?