Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are Men Out of Time in Tarantino’s Ode to the Dying Dream Factory.
DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO/2019
“This song, Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We’re stealing it back.”
Nary a review of a Quentin Tarantino movie slides by without at least a mention of the fact that his movies are really about other movies. This one, though, is kind of different. This one is about movie posters. Movie signage, movie billboards, making movies… In short, a complete immersion into Hollywood.
Don’t go looking for it- it’s all gone now. Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive still drag and wind about (respectively), but the stops along the way, the landmarks and life witnessed there, have since been papered over and redone and rebooted several times. It’s 1969, and the proverbial bubble is slowly ramping up to a bloody burst. That thin membrane’s in lots of trouble…
Oh sure, the writing’s been on the wall for a while, what with the rise of the youth and their particular rock and/or roll culture. Brando gave way to James Dean and James Dean gave way to Elvis and Ricky Nelson and then Warren Beatty and Ann-Margaret and then Clint Eastwood and later, Dennis Hopper. Who was a friend of James Dean’s. All of these, in their moments, were sharply square pegs aggressive ramming into the round holes of the mature Cary Grant/Doris Day/John Wayne pastel and lantern-jawed establishment.
Late 1969 proved to be a force marker in both the pained transformation of Hollywood and the world proper. That was real life. (Somewhere, far far away, a military action- a war– was going on). This, on the other hand, is art. Art not so much imitating life as poking around it. In that, it probably helps to know what sick evil went down in the Hollywood Hills on the night August 9, 1969. Don’t come here looking for that history lesson, though.
Instead, we get a crash course in the flailing state of studio-based film and television production, courtesy of washed up alcoholic actor Rick Dalton, played with deceptive precision by Leonardo DiCaprio. Rick is sad. His heyday on the 1950’s Western television series Bounty Law long behind him, he now finds himself flailing adrift in winds of weekly guest starring shots and holding out hope that the next pilot season might turn things around.
And Brad Pitt, what’s he doing? Why, he plays Cliff Booth, Dalton’s longtime stunt double turned driver. Stuntman Cliff’s a cool dude, and pretty good in a fight. “Champion”, his shirt says. Blissfully free of the shackles of prior stardom, he exudes an air of, if not contentment, at least confident resignation. And just when we’ve completely warmed up to him, a hideously violent past is alluded to. When Dalton tasks Booth with fixing his busted TV antenna, Pitt’s performance leaves you convinced that he knows his way around a tool shed. But mostly, Booth drives around town, passing every movie marquee and billboard in town, eventually giving a fateful ride to a flirtatious transient hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) who proves too persistent to ignore. Though anything resembling a character arc belongs to DiCaprio’s Dalton, the movie nonetheless feels like it really and truly belongs to Pitt’s character… even though he’s less prominent on the poster for this film.
Together, they’re a hard-bitten Polaroid shot of masculinity, one as the era presented it and one as quietly unraveled. Such notions of manhood, the unsustainably selfish things they are and were, are riper than ever for exploitation. Tarantino loves Dalton and Booth even more than we do, lingering on their seemingly unimportant little aside moments for the longest times.
Meanwhile, the beautiful up-and-coming movie star Sharon Tate, as played by Margot Robbie (the term “impossibly radiant” comes to mind), is viewed as a certain kind of unapproachable girl existing on another plane. There’s the man she loves (male hair sculptor Jay Sebring, played by Emile Hirsh) and the man she’s married to (star director Roman Polanski, played by Rafal Zawierucha), both pointed out by über-male Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) to be of a certain “boyish” type. Are these really the guys who are supplanting the glorified grizzled steak-eaters?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as implied outright, is a fairy tale of sorts. Thanks almost entirely to Sergio Leone, the film’s title itself announces a certain grandiosity and importance, as Tarantino clearly aims to land in the saddle of the direct lineage of his idol’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. In 1991, director Tsui Hark launched a seemingly never-ending series of martial arts films starring Jet Li known as Once Upon a Time in China. It’s probably a safe assumption that Tarantino thinks those movies are cool, too. The question then becomes, will Once Upon a Time in Hollywood land among those esteemed tiles, or is it destined for the dollar bin of all eternity, alongside of that similar but failed aspiration by former Tarantino cohort Robert Rodriguez, Once Upon a Time in Mexico?
Judgement will rain down soon enough, since every new film by Quentin Tarantino is a must-see event. There’s no need to be precious about them, he’s doing that for us. For some reason, he’s taken to numbering his films, with a long-rumored endpoint being Number Ten. This being Number Nine (number nine… number nine…), we are, in that way, basically being prodded into embracing and savoring every one of its beloved flickering frames. For, soon enough, the whole thing (the maverick Gen. X icon director’s career, that is) is guaranteed to simply stop in its bright projector and burn the hell up. The way it works is this: If you care at all about cinema, you have to see every new Tarantino film- regardless of how you may feel about it, or about him.
Some will say, based on this odd ramble of a movie, that Tarantino’s self-imposed deadline can’t get here soon enough. (This for the record, is the wrong take). (Full disclosure- I’ve thus far avoided the increasingly obnoxious Tarantino persona for this particular press tour. If he’s backed off of his ten-film claim, I haven’t heard about it. In any case, the seeds of his legacy have been sown). Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, more-so than films One through Eight, what the director has referred to as “a hang-out movie”. The fairly rare type of movie that’s greatest pleasures are found while simply “hanging out” with the characters. Sure, there can be a story and even a plot in such films. Case in point, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo– the very one that prompted Tarantino’s term.
This movie, though, for the most part, goes full-on chill. Those familiar with the true-crime fate of Sharon Tate and her friends know that there’s a poison in the air that will invade. But the two hours and twenty minutes of the Good Timin’ Brad & Leo Show that precede the finale – and make no mistake, all roads do lead to that finale- isn’t just the filmmaker lulling us into a false sense of security. More than the structurally similar Inglourious Basterds, this is Tarantino utterly finessing his premise and setting for all it’s worth.
If every Tarantino film is its own unique dive into his own influences and interests, then this one must be his absolute prime work. Having been successfully courted by Sony following the fall Harvey Weinstein, this first-ever major studio effort by the favored writer-director has been forged adoringly with a massive budget, the only way to practically recreate the 1969 Hollywood of his dreams. Or more accurately, his youth. (As Tarantino, rich and powerful enough to effectively abhor and willfully avoid the digital plague of smart phones and DCPs, is all about the practical). He effectively communicates that moment when the Dream Factory was laying off people left and right, but even at its lowest ebb, movies were still magical. (Even the now-forgotten ones, as all your favorite 1969 movies are displayed throughout with fetishized flourish).
And so, it’s true, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood casts a spell all its own. Though its gratuitous running time (161 minutes) is felt throughout, you don’t want to leave. Though certain strands are as transparent as the plot of your typical late sixties’ TV show, we approve. This is the most intoxicating and immersive self-indulgent wallow we’ve been invited to in a while, being that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. All of Tarantino’s baseline hallmarks are here: Brilliant dialogue (not all of it, but some), shattering violence (not all that much, but more than enough), and spot-on appropriation of songs, cut to the images lovingly rendered by the great director of photography Robert Richardson (at least one such sequence ranks among the All-Time Greatest). It’s also got a tremendously irresistible supporting cast, including Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry (God bless him, R.I.P.), Dakota Fanning, Austin Butler, Lena Dunham, original Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond, and the actor children of many a contemporary Hollywood luminary.
Predict the outcome if you must, your enjoyment won’t be affected. This is true love of a town that doesn’t know how to love, only kill. It’s the town that wrote, produced, and directed the once and always cool relic, Quentin Tarantino. Even still, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not so much movie madness as it’s movie malaise. It offers not a happily ever after, but a happily never after.