By now, it should be be no surprise that a new Quentin Tarantino film finds the filmmakers shuffling together all his good and bad instincts like the thick, blood-speckled cards of a tarot deck. Then they’re flipped up with a randomness that is reshaped into a semi-logical totality on the fly by the teller, often in direct contrast to what any reasonable intuition might infer. No, no, no, he jabbers insistently, the Death card is actually good!
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, duly pronounced Tarantino’s ninth film in promotional materials, is set in Southern California in 1969. The entertainment industry looms large in the narrative, mostly in the recounting of lonely ballad of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former big screen fixture and star of the TV western Bounty Law who’s slipping into professional irrelevancy, reduced to guest spots as cardboard villains to be dispatched at some point between the last commercial break and the closing credits. There are also Rick’s new neighbors, newlyweds Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), who represent the ascendancy of the generation that’s pushing the older creative personnel aside. As real figures introduced into Tarantino’s fiction, the couple also provides the impetus for the director to dig into the darker corners of the late-sixties California culture.
To get to the ranch where trouble is fomenting, Tarantino employs a character named Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s former stunt double and current jack-of-all-trades aide, driving the actor to and from the set, fixing items around the house, and providing pep talks. Cliff’s curiosity about a live wire hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) eventually puts him within the burbling menace of the community of hollow-eyed young disciples assembled by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who’s courting an especially narrow typecasting dilemma by also playing the insane monster in the upcoming season of Mindhunter). Before the film is complete, the brief connection proves significant.
To Tarantino’s credit, he operates essentially three distinctively story threads in a way that allows them all to be more of less satisfying. He’s not particularly deft in his juggling — his helpless love for languid set pieces essentially forces him to leave pots he’s set to bubbling unattended for longer than is ideal — but he largely makes the sprawling film feel cohesive and admirably, improbably tight. The more significant problem is the period details — in music selection, in art direction, in styling — that have been inserted into the film as delicately as a backhoe drops in a load of gravel. Especially in the first act, when Tarantino is establishing his world, the film can seem less of an exercise in storytelling and more of an excuse for the filmmaker to display the favorite things he acquired after going into a vintage shop and declaring he’d take it all. Very quickly, the material excess shifts from convincingly of the era to pure distraction.
Almost in defiance in its flaws, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood continuously reasserts itself as disarmingly compelling, mostly due to the conviction Tarantino and his collaborators bring to the intoxicating allure of the movies. Propelled by DiCaprio’s multi-layered performance — which, at times, seems to be lightly satirizing the floridness of his turn in Tarantino’s Django Unchained — the rickety endurance of Rick achieves an unexpected poignancy, and the perplexing underuse of Robbie is very nearly redeemed by the sweetly unguarded joy she conveys in the scene in which Sharon goes to a movie theater to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino’s obvious and genuine affection for the roiling history of U.S. cinema inserted into his work has previously come across as overly self-satisfied, predatory, and even mildly toxic. This film represents the first time his obsession plays as warm and movingly appreciative.
As has been the case in every movie bearing the director’s signature after the comparative control of Pulp Fiction, the new Tarantino joint is messy. Personal appreciation will depend on how the the filmmaker’s well-established tics registers with the individual viewer. Are they are joy, or are they an irritation? I’ve gradually drifted toward the latter camp, but I recognized the charms of — and was occasionally enthralled by — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Although I found plenty to dislike (mostly the borderline sadism of the grand finale, shaped by Tarantino’s now trademark vindictive revisionism), the more restrained, observant moments — Rick’s tentative pleasure in succeeding on set, Rick and Cliff smack-talking their way through an episode of The F.B.I. — managed to compensate. If nothing else, this film offers the least aggressively mannered dialogue of any Tarantino film, a small yet laudable feat.
I’m long past expecting Tarantino to restrain his oddly lowbrow pretensions enough to let his actual talent catch up. Creatively, he’s a typhoon that swirls up gemstones. Standing in his path mean gets buffeted, but riches are the reward. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood could be leaner, smarter, kinder, easily a half hour shorter. But then it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie, would it?