Review: Tarantino pays tribute to Hollywood in 'Once Upon a Time'
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in filmmaker's portrait of 1969 Los Angeles
It's right there in the title, hiding in plain sight. "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is a fairy tale.
Or at least it's Quentin Tarantino's version of one. The maverick director uses this tale of California dreams, both developing and dashed, to pay homage to the Hollywood of yore, play around with fact and fiction and rewrite history the way he sees fit.
Never fear, Tarantino hasn't gone soft, and he still makes time for a bit of the old ultraviolence; a bit with a flamethrower won't soon be forgotten. But this is Tarantino in rosy nostalgia mode, and while he'd probably blush at the term, it's the sweetest he's ever been.
His tale is set in Los Angeles in 1969. Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a TV actor staring down an inevitable career decline. It's DiCaprio's first role since winning an Oscar for "The Revenant," and he's a hoot as a fading star wrestling with his own ego.
Brad Pitt is Rick's buddy and longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth. Pitt plays Booth like a mixture of Floyd, the couch surfing stoner he played in "True Romance," and Aldo Raine, the tough guy smart aleck he played in Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds." Rick and Cliff are navigating a changing Hollywood landscape, as well as a culture in rapid transition, and they're trying to find their footing before they take a tumble.
Next door to Rick is Sharon Tate (a beaming Margot Robbie in a small but deeply effective performance) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), which grounds this fantasy in harsh reality, and gives it a ticking clock. We see Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) walking through the neighborhood, and Cliff has an extended run-in with members of the Manson family at the Spahn Movie Ranch. In real life, the Tate murders brought the '60s to a screeching halt. In a way, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" asks, "what if they didn't?"
Tarantino uses this entire landscape as a canvas for his pop culture obsession run amok. There are memorials to the movies and TV shows he loves, and more vintage movie posters than in a movie geek's wildest dreams. He uses Hollywood back lots to stage playful encounters with the stars, the most entertaining of which is a riotous showdown between Cliff and a young Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). In another playful sequence, Tarantino digitally inserts DiCaprio into the Steve McQueen role in "The Great Escape."
And Tarantino rolls out the red carpet for friends old and new. QT veterans Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell and Michael Madsen show up in small roles, as do Bruce Dern, Scoot McNairy, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Maya Hawke, Al Pacino and, in his final screen role, Luke Perry. Margaret Qualley, meanwhile, steals scenes as Pussycat, an alluring Manson girl who has several run-ins with Cliff.
The result is a punch drunk, starry-eyed tribute to the movies, the give and take of stardom and the sun-drenched Los Angeles of Tarantino's youth, as well as a portrait of radical culture shift as the '60s crashed into the '70s. Hippies and hippy culture and lambasted and receive a violent comeuppance.
"Hollywood" has a looser, more relaxed feel than Tarantino's best, most urgent works ("Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill Vol. 1"), which captured lightning in a bottle then shattered that bottle with a sword. But it feels more personal than any of his previous projects, and settles into a relaxed, middle-aged rhythm.
Since he blazed into moviemaking 27 years ago with "Reservoir Dogs," no one has made movies like Tarantino, and with "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," that remains true. His passion for cinema has always shone through his work, as gushy as a teenage love letter. Only here, rather than in blood, it's signed with love.
'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'
Rated R: for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Running time: 165 minutes