“What’s the idea of the story?”
It’s so appropriate that a movie like Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood is so very open to interpretation. Even the title isn’t exact. I’ve seen different words capitalized, an ellipsis used in different spots and with different spacing. But the ellipsis, as well as the So-Cal setting, proves to be a crucial character in its own right. This is a fairy tale that captures the feel of a moment and the look of a place without depending on fact, and those three little dots in the title are meant to prepare us for omissions and changes to history without losing the essence of the story. Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood doesn’t explain itself to death because it’s so alive, and instead shakes our hand with a proper grip and trusting eyes before taking us on a journey. We don’t need to hear the mechanics of it all; they’re already understood and agreed upon.
Observational in the same way that Bob Dylan’s 1964 release “The Times They Are a-Changin'” was prescient, Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood rambles around and through 1969. Since this was the year of Woodstock, the picture floats along – uncomfortably, unrushed, and at times too concerned with – the current of the changing cultural zeitgeist, told by an easy-breezy story built from a series of blithe vignettes interwoven with great intricacy and even more aimlessness. There’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star and a hapless drunk best known for his early Western work, now relenting to bit parts as the heavy bad guy. By his side is his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff’s days are mostly behind him, which he’s oddly comfortable with, and he stays on the payroll as Rick’s driver, fixer, and full-time babysitter. Just up the hill from Rick’s humble abode is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an up-and-coming actress married to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). And always felt creeping in the background is Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his “family” of inland castaways.
Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood isn’t your standard three-act play or conveniently structured movie. Echoing the heart of the story and the California canyons, the film almost seems to intentionally not know who it is or what it should be or how the picture should go about itself. It’s a wayward route towards a decisive destination, a love letter to a bygone era, and in the quintessential fashion of Quentin Tarantino, a supreme example of how masterfully confident direction can support an endless imagination and nearly fetishized curiosity for retelling and reshaping the truth in a world where bad guys finish last. That the protagonists are hardly any better makes the moral dilemma all the more interesting.
In a film casually walking across a two and a half hour run time, languishing beats and dawdling around in nothingness, it’s rather disappointing to spend so little time with Manson’s cult and Robbie’s spirited turn as Sharon Tate. She smiles, dances, fawns, and has less lines than the free-spirited cult member Pussycat (played by a scene-stealing Margaret Qualley.) Robbie is more or less an occasional bright spot in a film dominated by overcast outlooks on what’s to come our way; she plays the lit wick whereas the majority of the flick is concerned with a few has-beens donning dimmed lights, newly relegated to their position on Hollywood’s totem pole as the hard and disposable wax of the candle.
Besides being his most gentle, sincere and humane feature since Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood might be the man’s most introspective project to date, and the whole operation works beautifully as an autobiographical retrospective of a filmmaker and a storyteller looking back on the tales he’s told through an exact, precise prism of time. The production design by Barbara Ling is faultless, capturing a crap-shoot snapshot of West Coast living for Tarantino to happily shake up. Fred Raskin’s editing gives the picture a speakeasy voice, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography delivers primal urges, leaving us hungry and thirsty for a time that looked a little bit sweeter and grainier. It really is beautiful to watch a filmmaker of Tarantino’s caliber sing and redefine his greatest hits in a time period important to his own upbringing, and one where cowboy shootouts are substituted for discussion, still lit by the hazy clouds of cigarette smoke, and where a little bit of self-loathing in the mirror can go a long way.
Tarantino has made more accessible films, more masturbatory stories, and has better looking pictures on his résumé (for how much I dislike it, The Hateful Eight packs quite the picturesque punch), and yet Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood is his first foray into the bromance sub-genre. I’d compare it to Shane Black’s The Nice Guys; this is far more mysterious, languid, and the whole picture lingers and saunters because its leading men know that galloping only means they’ll disappear into the horizon sooner than later. I’m not quite sure what Tarantino’s latest feature means as a whole, or if its bizarre patterns are just borrowing from the Zodiac killer’s cryptic line of thinking. Yet I do know that this is a relentlessly infinite movie focused on how finite fame/time can be, and I think that the rich marrow in the many bones of this story seems to come from stumbled upon, unintentional, grandiose wish-fulfillment throughout. Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood is a slice of revisionist pie and a drunken take on history. Facts are skewed, details slurred, with an ending that appears out of thin air. We don’t believe it for a second, but it’s so disarming and charming that we entertain the magic act, hoping to be touched by this game of tag. To become a part of the story. To participate in the fairy tale. To fill in that damn ellipsis with a piece of ourselves. To be, or not to be, Hollywood.
“I think it hits harder than I gave it credit for.”
Rating 4.5 out of 5