Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood delivers everything you would expect from the pop pastiche auteur. That is to say you have no idea where he is headed, or how he’s going to get there. This masterfully-constructed, melancholy ode to a city in which he grew up – a city that has longe since disappeared – is the best journey he’s put together in a decade, arguably longer.
This is Tarantino remembering the city that was Los Angeles, and Hollywood, in 1969. Told episodically, the world we’re inhabiting often blends seamlessly with scenes from the films and television shows always dancing in the periphery. Tarantino has built a universe around these characters, a backlog of films and stories that would fill a 10-episode series on HBO. We hang out here for a while, then there, and while it might take a minute or two to catch the wavelength Tarantino is on, once you’re on it, the story he tells is borderline transcendent. This is a film about a terrific friendship, about the fleeting days of stardom, about failures and the need for acceptance, all set against a backdrop of a world turned upside down.
At least, it seems that way for Rick Dalton.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a matinee idol of years gone by, former star of Westerns, killer of Nazis in war pictures. But it’s 1969 now and here comes Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda, and “damn hippies” challenging the Old Guard and altering the look and feel of cinema. These new radicals with their sideburns and their beads changed the leading man landscape in Hollywood seemingly overnight, leaving Rick Dalton and those like him in the rearview mirror. Squares. And now, Rick is relegated to playing bad guys in TV shows, heavies existing solely to bear the brunt of the new, young heroes fisticuffs.
Rick can see the writing on the wall, he can feel his star fading, and he doesn’t handle it all that well. Were it not for his friend and longtime stunt double partner, Cliff Booth, Dalton would have met a tragic end somewhere along the way. Cliff is played by Brad Pitt, exuding just as much cool confidence as DiCaprio exudes crushing insecurities. The picture basically follows these best friends across Hollywood a few days in February (before jumping ahead six months, of course), where we learn the lay of the land, and we find out Rick Dalton lives next door to hot young director Roman Polanski and his beautiful bride, Sharon Tate.
Margot Robbie plays Tate, who serves to give the story an injection of heart. Robbie is brilliant in her limited role, and despite the screen time she ultimately has, Tate never feels far from the edge of the frame. It’s best not to spoil major plot points, or minor plot points for that matter. Appearances vary in size; actors drift in and out of the story, events happen, and it all feels authentic to a time in place that clearly affected a young Quentin Tarantino. The director’s ability to transport us into a hyper-specific avenue of Hollywood lore, in such an iconic era, is borderline euphoric in its authenticity, with it’s rich, textured art direction and Robert Richardson’s warm cinematography. This is Tarantino at his most affectionate.
And so the story goes, and there are surprises and cameos, and it’s best left unspoken. These are actors hanging out with each other, pulling each other through life, trying to find their footing. It’s tough to compare and contrast DiCaprio and Pitt’s performances because they’re so drastically different. Pitt feels born to play Cliff Booth, but needed the years and the wisdom to pull it off with such aplomb. DiCaprio, on the other hand, is doing big work, something he often tries to sidestep in his roles. Thankfully, here, he frees himself up to be a little desperate, and that’s always when he taps into his underrated comedic chops. He is quite funny, quite often, and this movie is quite brilliant from start to finish.