“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” brings Quentin Tarantino back to Los Angeles for the first time since his “Kill Bill” films, and, though the story is set 50 years ago in 1969, he seems to feel at home again.
The way L.A. connects and disconnects, and the way a million stories can happen at any time, right under our noses, is intrinsic to Tarantino’s best films: “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.”
The place where movies and dreams are made also allows him to to lay down his own brand of film criticism, not unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s early crime films (“Breathless,” “Pierrot le Fou,” etc.). But Tarantino is less intellectual and more enthusiastic than Godard.
Posters and movie marquees show off a wide array of 1968-69 titles, from familiar to obscure. Tarantino uses these images to sort and defend second-tier crime and action films, Westerns, martial arts flicks, etc., re-branding them as art. It’s criticism as collage.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” centers on three main characters. Fictitious Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a hard-drinking, fading action/cowboy actor, fallen from leading roles to playing bad guys on TV pilots.
The also fictitious Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his longtime stunt double, now relegated to driving Rick around and doing his home repairs. Cool-headed and uncomplaining, Cliff is definitely a guy you’d want on your side in a fight.
Over the course of a couple of days, Rick goes to work on a new Western while struggling with his art, while Cliff keeps running into a flirty teen, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), seeking a ride to Spahn Ranch.
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the real actress who appeared in Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and Mark Robson’s “Valley of the Dolls,” lives next door to Rick. (Tate married Polanski and famously was murdered by members of the Manson “family.”)
While Rick and Cliff are doing their thing, Tate pops into a theater to enjoy reactions to her performance in her new movie, “The Wrecking Crew,” a Matt Helm adventure starring Dean Martin.
Tarantino weaves together disparate threads of story and cool movie lore. For example, Bruce Lee (ably impersonated by Mike Moh) really worked as a consultant on “The Wrecking Crew” with Tate.
But the movie also has a memory, flashback, fantasy scene in which Cliff, challenged to a fight with Lee, winds up losing his job.
Tarantino latches onto an obscure bit of film history about how actors of Rick’s ilk were lured to Italy to make “Spaghetti Westerns,” considered sub-par to some, but working out well for artists like Clint Eastwood.
Rick finds success working for the (real) director Sergio Corbucci in a (fake) movie, “Nebraska Jim.”
Many scenes of driving, accompanied by period pop songs blaring from tinny car speakers, loop in and around the story, tying knots. In one, Cliff makes his way home to a trailer behind a drive-in theater and feeds his dog. It’s virtually meaningless, but nonetheless mesmerizing, and like much of the movie, meets its matching end at a later point.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” uses fictional and sort-of true elements to discuss cycles of violence, on and offscreen; one member of Manson’s crew posits the idea of responding to violence on television with violence on those that created it.
The movie doesn’t follow the true history of Tate and Manson and doesn’t pretend to. Like he did in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” Tarantino offers an alternate ending and revenge fantasy, which may seem like cheating to some viewers.
To Tarantino, it’s where lines diverge, where reality and artifice don’t, and never, can meet. He enjoys manipulations and the process of turning real life into cinema.
And he wonderfully defies expectations. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” intellectually unpacks and repacks history. With lengthy, dreamy shots that open up, rather than cut scenes short, it emerges as a beautiful piece of work.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Al Pacino
Written and directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes