Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood is two hours and 45 minutes long. Barely anything happens, and it's absolutely terrific.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a bordering-on-washed-up actor named Rick Dalton. He starred in a TV western a decade ago, but now, in 1969, he's doing guest shots playing bad guys on shows like Lancer and The F.B.I. Whatever the story is, it ends with him getting his butt whooped. Thanks to some DUIs, his driver license has been revoked, so his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is also his chauffeur. But more than that, Cliff is his best pal. There's a bit of a boss-employee relationship, but not much. The two guys love hanging out with each other, and there's great respect between them.
Rick wisely bought a decent-sized house when his situation was more secure, and it sits down the hill from a larger home that's being rented by hotshot European director Roman Polanski and his wife, rising star Sharon Tate, who we know is doomed to be killed by the Manson Family. Rick would love an entry to their world of respectable "important" pictures, but he's stuck at the end of a locked gate, making forgettable TV.
That's it. That's the movie, right up until the big ending. But for two hours and, say, 30 minutes, we get a deep soak in the minutiae of radio ads, TV promos, billboards, movie posters, outfits, hairstyles, and what people were talking like in Los Angeles in 1969, as absorbed by the sponge-like mind of Quentin Tarantino, who was observing it all as a savant-like six-year-old.
Few filmmakers have the clout to demand a substantial budget (reportedly $90 million) and the guarantee of a wide release for a talk-heavy, plot-resistant movie so absolutely on their own terms. In fact, once Tarantino stops working (something he may very well do soon), there may be none left. It's therefore all the more appropriate that his newest film isn't just a deep dive into one man's personal obsessions, but that those obsessions dovetail with "a time the movies changed, man."
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Describing OUATIH as nothing more than a man with an expensive toy chest all to himself does it an incredible disservice. The last 25 years have proven that Tarantino's interests very much align with those of moviegoers, whether they know it or not. Each dragged-out scene here -- shots of Pitt just kinda driving around LA listening to the radio, or DiCaprio wandering a studio backlot, chatting with fellow actors and craftspeople -- are precisely what most screenwriting gurus would say need to be cut. And that's why they are hustling their method at the Learning Annex while Tarantino has a guaranteed spot on cinema's Mount Rushmore.
Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs, released in 1992, wasn't just groundbreaking for the cool suits, deep cut needle-drops, unexpected bursts of violence, and crafty twists -- although that all led to it. The thing that really stood out (and I, Methuselah, am old enough to have been there) was seeing archetypical movie characters on a screen bickering like dopes about pop culture. This has been copied and recopied so much since then that it is actually refreshing when a new movie doesn't lean on this sort of thing. But back then, to see guys fetishistically analyzing the lyrics to Madonna's "Like A Virgin" right with the opening credits was revolutionary.
OUATIH doesn't just have characters make the kind of references that have salted Tarantino's work this whole time; it has them live the references. There isn't a character inspired by Bruce Lee, like the Bride in Kill Bill; there's Bruce Lee himself, played by Mike Moh. Moreover, there's Tarantino's make-believe wish-fulfillment character, the cooler-than-cool stuntman who gets to drive around LA and flirt with hippies, actually tussling with Bruce Lee while hanging out on the set of Green Hornet. And maybe kicking his butt a little!
There are other examples of playing in this sandbox, like a visit to the notorious Spahn Movie Ranch (and interacting with the kooky future murderers living there at the time), or inserting DiCaprio into Steve McQueen's role in The Great Escape, or DiCaprio bouncing to Rome for a bit to make spaghetti westerns. But what's also key -- perhaps the most important thing -- is seeing the prevalence of disposable culture. Tarantino knows that people will remember his work the way we remember Polanski's (and hopefully the connections end with just the work). But in the moment when Polanski was making that work, the airwaves were busy with random junk instead of his artful cinema. In the same way, today more people will likely see a random episode of NCIS than this film.
But Tarantino isn't angry. This movie is in part about accepting the aging process, though not without some sadness. (DiCaprio plays this at first for laughs, then later with some genuine grace.) And with it comes the joy of a good "hangout movie" -- a term popularized by Tarantino to describe one of his favorite westerns: Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin.
Martin, hardly remembered as one of cinema's great thespians, factors into OUATIH directly during one of its best sequences, and certainly the sweetest in Tarantino's resume. A day in the life of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is cross-cut with that our two heroes. We watch her bop around LA running errands. She wears an adorable outfit, is sweet to a hitchhiker (one of those hippies) and a shopkeeper, and then spots a movie theater showing The Wrecking Crew (an installment in Martin's "Matt Helm" series), in which she has a supporting role.
In the movie, Tate plays a sexy klutz who later gets into a kung fu brawl. In OUATIH, we watch her watch these two scenes (and also flash back to Bruce Lee giving her martial arts training for the role). While watching herself up on the big screen, she's sitting front and center on our big screen (maybe in 70mm, if you see it right), wearing a big grin on her face as she revels in the crowd's reactions.
Well, we're sure it was amazing at the time.
It's a monumental moment because it re-humanizes Tate, who for so long has been nothing but a symbol of a grisly set of killings, maybe even a dark punchline. Think of Trent Reznor, who later regretted renting the Tate house to record "The Downward Spiral." After he met Tate's sister, he realized she wasn't "American folklore," but a victim of "serial-killer bullsh*t." But in Tarantino and Robbie's hands, she is warm and lovable.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention what is also front and center in the frame during this sequence. Feeling relaxed, Tate kicks off her shoes and puts her feet up on the back of the empty seat in front of her. Her soles are right there, which is funny if you are aware of Tarantino's infamous foot fetish. But this is not a bad thing! It's someone using all their skills to make the movie they want to see, featuring all the things they love. (Besides Robbie, there's also Dakota Fanning and especially Margaret Qualley, who actually presses her feet up against glass.) It's harmless if everyone is onboard -- no mockery here!
And it's also probably not something we're likely to see again, as mainstream movies seem to be veering into a more prudish territory. Perhaps Tarantino recognizes that he represents the passing of an era, just as Polanski and the "New Hollywood" signaled an end to the cheap dross that guys like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth were making. Deciding what era was actually "better" is up to you.
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