When I suggested to my friends Paige, Wendy and Celeste, that we go to karaoke on our road trip this past weekend, they insisted that instead we see “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” If you have ever heard Yours Truly sing, you know this was a wise choice.
“Once” is director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and it feels like his most personal film. It’s infused with Tarantino’s love and encyclopedic knowledge of film. It’s sharp, funny, and aside from one over-the-top scene, does not boast of Tarantino’s trademark violence.
The film is set in 1969 Hollywood and boy, do you feel it. Every costume, hairstyle, song and set will bring you back to that era. Tarantino populates the film with dialogue, TV, commercials, posters and more. My friends and I whispered to each other, “I remember “Honey West,” and “I wore Heaven Sent.”
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an actor trying to come back after the cancellation of his TV Western “Bounty Law,” and Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double, who now spends his time driving and running errands. These two fictional Hollywood characters coexist with real-life Hollywood legends like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and most poignantly, Rick’s new neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
“Once Upon a Time…” strings together scenes that take place in two days in February and two days in August. Tate hesitantly enters a theater showing her movie, “The Wrecking Crew” and watches, beaming as the audience laughs and applauds at her big scene. Dalton has a quiet conversation with a young child co-star (Julia Butters) on a TV western set. Booth picks up a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley), he’s been drive-by flirting with, leading to a suspenseful scene where Cliff confronts the zoned-out but menacing hippies in the Manson family. (Watch for “Girls” Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning).
Tarantino devotes a good chunk of time to a compelling, but slightly overlong vignette with Dalton guest starring as a villain on an episode of “Lancer,” which was a real show. It’s an acting showpiece for DiCaprio and almost a mini-movie unto itself.
In their first film together, DiCaprio and Pitt make a great team, right down to their unspecified Southernish drawls and buddy-movie charisma. They drink, drive and bemoan the “hippies” who’ve infiltrated the neighborhood and how Hollywood’s lack of roles have forced Dalton to go to Italy to film Spaghetti Westerns. When the pair return from Italy, it’s August 8, 1969 and Rick has a few extra pounds and an Italian wife.
There’s a slightly jarring shift in tone as the narrator takes over and we watch Tate and her friends enjoy what we know to be their last day before they are murdered. The movie takes another turn as the violence that you expect from Tarantino arrives in an over-the-top, brutal and controversial scene that critics and audience members seem to applaud or despise.
Tarantino is known for getting great work from his actors. DiCaprio is especially effective in what might be his best performance yet. Pitt is as good as he’s been since, well, the last film he did with Tarantino, 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” and my friends and I would like to personally thank Quentin for the scene of him shirtless. Robbie infuses Tate with humanity, sweetness and light. Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Hammond, Moh and Luke Perry, in his last film role, are all excellent. Al Pacino’s turn as agent Marvin Schwarzs is less successful as he feels just a bit out of place.
I know many will have an issue of Tarantino’s storytelling choices in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” but you can’t quibble with his talent and vision. There are a lot of meh movies out there, this is not one of them.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood