Review: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood gives a slow but satisfying burn

The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino (a designation that gives a clever bit of limited edition!!!-style marketing to everything since the writer-director announced his ten-films-and-out retirement) isn’t his magnum opus, but as a supposedly penultimate effort, it makes sense in a way. When even a filmmaker as fresh-faced and at his career peak as Damien Chazelle is doing a film about the planned obsolescence of the Hollywood talent of yesteryear, here’s Tarantino doing, well, the same thing—here with the creeping shadow of irrelevance knowingly falling quite a bit closer on the man behind it.

Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is largely the saga of the tragedy of being in a fading generation of entertainment. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, an actor who was once a leading man of a popular Western series of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Since then, he’s been working less and drinking more, now only getting TV villain guest spots—today’s equivalent of when someone has to do a part on Law & Order: SVU, and you immediately know they’re the rapist because they were in that thing back whenever. He tellingly compares hippies to Easy Rider’s Dennis Hopper and is forced to face a precocious 8-year-old girl who has to tell him about method acting. It’s the end of his era, and at producer/agent Marvin Schwarz’s (Al Pacino) encouragement, he’s reluctantly ready to ditch the titular town to do some “Eye-tal-yin” Westerns in Italy.

Meanwhile, Dalton’s longtime stunt double, the ever-too-cool Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), has similarly not been doing so great. Since having a ridiculous altercation on the set of one of Dalton’s shows, he’s been ostracized from the industry and is now basically Dalton’s personal assistant. He chauffeurs Dalton around; does the actor’s home repairs; oh!—and he maybe killed his own wife by throwing her off a boat, though that’s as uneasily discarded as it was introduced as an unexplored subplot. Like Dennis Reynolds and the cops on the Natalie Wood case, Tarantino apparently feels that potential crimes where women turn up dead at sea are meant to forever be a disquieting mystery.

Unfortunately, that’s not the writer-director’s only (potential!) crime against women here, either. As the late Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie is basically used solely as a background prop to frame the film against the Manson Family Murders ever in the background (and occasionally in the foreground), and it’s unclear whether she was cast as an actress or foot model. Likewise, the largely-female Manson Family—and, consequently, all the other women in the film who don’t just scream at Booth in either Italian or New Zealand accents—are given vapidly short shrift. It’s not great, but there it is, regardless of whether Q.T. gets a light pass for the Kill Bills’ loose empowerment.

The film’s framing—some invented characters dropped into the real-life tragedy of follow-the-leader murder—nearly makes it a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, dumping Pitt into the pit of reality and letting him develop a new course for hyper-violent history. But it also lets Tarantino lean into some of his other most obvious tendencies. His love for pastiche that borders on theft is here completely excused—and even encouraged, at least as much as in Grindhouse—thanks to his giving Family Guy-style peeks at Dalton’s now-dated catalogue of on-the-nose parodies (Hey, remember that time I was almost cast in The Great Escape…?). As much as Tarantino has always put together a very concerted oldies soundtrack, here all the needle drops and in-car radio often make it feel like he’s made a too-long mixtape (the soundtrack is 32 tracks…) and is just driving for the film’s near-three-hour runtime to make sure we hear them all. And, yes, he sure does get some in-your-face foot shots in there. Bare, dirty soles; feet on the glass of a windshield; a foot as a pointer instead of a finger—all the hits only a very specific fetishist would imagine.

But for as long and indulgent as it certainly is, Once Upon a Time ends up feeling almost abbreviated. Like a college essay where he suddenly realizes he’s nearing the bare minimum page count, Tarantino abruptly wraps up his too-wordy, rambling piece with a conclusion so admirably succinct that one wishes the entire film had maintained its latter, Kurt Russell-narrated brevity. It’s a final act that’s tight, direct, and the most (sometimes brutally) hilarious part of a film that’s the closest Tarantino has come to an outright comedy.

More than any of that, though, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood makes a strong case first made in Django Unchained, another Tarantino film obsessed over revisionist history and Spaghetti Westerns: DiCaprio is a better character actor than a dramatic leading man. His frequently big performance as Dalton—gently stuttering, ever on the verge of tears, laugh-out-loud chugging margaritas from blenders and wielding flamethrowers—elevates what could have been Tarantino’s most mediocre, broadest effort into what, despite its faults, is a pretty damn good buddy comedy in which somehow the buddies are often apart. And it’s that kind of scenery-chewing work that should save DiCaprio from ever being the child molester in an SVU.

Grade: B+

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Studio: Sony
Runtime: 161 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino

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