Movie review: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019)

“When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

Earlier this August, I spent a fairly enchanting late morning exploring the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. An unassuming space compared to New York City’s many higher profile museums, MoMI packs so much tangible, three-dimensional history into its limited imprint that the effect can be a little overwhelming to first time pilgrims like me, wide-eyed true believers in the religion of film. There’s no other plausible way to explain my reaction as, standing in a room flanked by opposing processions, almost military columns, of all size and manner of antique movie and television cameras as they had been deployed through the years, I found myself getting a little choked up. Movies and all their attendant magic have been the indispensable fact and safe harbor of my life , thrilling, comforting, challenging, uplifting, and transporting me from the moment I saw the original Star Wars as a three-year-old to this very day. There is no single “thing” in the world that I care, or have cared, more about in my lifetime, and so, surrounded by artifacts of the medium’s rich history, I absorbed so much data that it eventually overwhelmed me. A brief pause to regain my composure, an exhalation and a knowing smile, and I was off to visit other surprising avenues and uncharted corners. I imagine Quentin Tarantino wakes up every day feeling much the same way about cinema that I did so acutely at MoMI – grateful and energized. It’s not a difficult leap to take. He lives and breathes the stuff. He practically marinates in it.

Messy, meandering, and mammoth, in both scope and entertainment value, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is inarguably the purest, most emphatic expression yet of Quentin Tarantino’s all-encompassing cinematic fetishism, wrapped up in a story that affords him almost too much space to wax romantic, and poetic, and ecstatic on a singular time and place – Hollywood, 1969 – that will be unfamiliar to much of his target audience, that is outside of what they’ve seen on television and in the movies. And what little they might’ve seen will provide scant preparation, I promise. With action that jumps from the black and white TV screen to the tumbleweed-strewn studio backlots that spawned it, to the backs of moving convertibles and muscle cars as they scream to and through the playgrounds of the rich and famous, and then dizzily, giddily, back again, Once Upon a Time makes its home in a pulsating, practically tactile screen version of Hollywood that clearly lived, preserved in amber, ready to be plucked from the transplanted California kid’s formidable memory banks and made manifest through some of the best, or at least most comprehensive, production design and set dressing I’ve ever seen in a movie. Tarantino so revels in the period detail in general, not to mention the minutiae involved in the shooting and presentation of, say, a late-sixties TV Western, that his enterprise approaches, without quite breaching, the sort of visual saturation point at which the components of a shot begin actively undermining the purpose of the shot. He successfully walks this tightrope for well over two hours before finally surrendering, and really shooting the moon.     

Every Tarantino film is, by its (and his) very nature, a labor of love, but the amount of care on display here, both subtle and obvious, really needs to be seen to be believed – at least twice, and preferably in the giant IMAX theater format, as I did, where such detail can and does leap off the screen and directly into the laps of viewers perhaps conditioned by the multiplex’s prevailing winds to expect less. I enjoyed but was frustrated by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the first time I saw it, but it really clicked for me upon a second viewing, in no small part due to that change of venue. Tarantino’s films, despite their talky, independent pedigree, have always been possessed of a certain presiding ballsiness and flamboyance, but have taken a hard extra turn lately toward providing assured, kinetic visuals that match his already celebrated referential motormouth writing style. Having famously filmed/released Hollywood’s predecessor, the Old West pressure cooker The Hateful Eight, in the exquisite but rarely seen 70mm film format, Tarantino pushes his frame further here, making his camera dip, soar, and ride shotgun, building atop standard period tricks to create a truly immersive environment, pumping rather than piping in evocative, wall-to-wall music, and really working to approximate the feel of walking in any given character’s wingtips, or moccasins, or sandals, or bare-ass, invariably dirty feet. So much of what makes Hollywood work in spite of its occasional clunkiness is the communicated feeling of all out life being lived on screen, especially as the specter of an infamous, signal evil is taking shape and creeping forward, grim and giggling, from just beyond those gorgeous hills.  

From Nazi-occupied France to the Antebellum South, the back half of Tarantino’s career has unfolded as a mad scientist’s travelogue filled with imperfect but fascinating examples of his potent predilection for revisionist history. Having already taken corrective stabs at both slavery and the Nazi scourge, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood finds him somehow dancing closer to the flame than ever, and drew immediate, pointed, often quite warranted, criticism for playing fast and loose with the lives and memories of some very real people and imposing his own personal stamp on an era that neither necessarily reflected nor demanded it. When word first began circulating that Tarantino was authoring a film about the infamous Manson Family/”Helter Skelter” murders that essentially ended the “hippie” era on such a tragic and ghastly note, I’ll admit to a mix of reactions – curiosity, trepidation, excitement, dread. The secret to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the reason why it works the first time around (though not the reason it continues to work on subsequent viewings after its narrative thrust and attendant secrets have been revealed) is that we as audience members carry those feelings into the theater with us, and are effectively at internal war as we watch. Every shot or sequence of the late actress Sharon Tate, played here by an effervescent Margot Robbie, is bittersweet to the core, because we reflexively contrast the vibrant life she’s living onscreen with the one of which she was cruelly and pointlessly robbed by Manson’s minions. Every glimpse of the Manson Family is likewise filled with foreboding, even before Tarantino starts dialing up the pressure. No matter what the action on screen, no matter how wild the current digression, there is a clock counting down in our heads at all times.

The film’s biggest surprise, then, is the degree to which both Tate and the Manson Family are relegated to supporting roles in their own drama. There’s no way to process what happens in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood without a working knowledge of the “Helter Skelter” murders, nor to make peace with Sharon Tate’s presence without feeling at least somewhat dirty in the exchange. We follow her with our awful advance knowledge as she cruises Sunset Boulevard in a gaudy convertible, parties with Steve McQueen and the Mamas and the Papas, and talks her way into a comped screening of Dean Martin spy-caper The Wrecking Crew by dropping her own name as co-star to the impressed ticket-taker and manager. She sits in the dark in this high, holy spot*, surrounded by strangers, spellbound by her image on screen, genuinely pleased and more than a little intoxicated by an audience that seems to be reacting to her fifth-billed performance in and at all the right ways and times. These moments provide a hopeful snapshot of Tate as ingenue and potential star with her whole life and career seemingly ahead of her, then invite us to apply a predetermined expiration date to all that promise. For all the shots of Manson’s various female followers haunting street corners, dumpster diving, and singing their merrily creepy carols through half-unsettling hippie smiles – Margaret Qualley makes an impression as the freewheeling hitchhiker who finally leads us to the Manson compound at a shuttered movie ranch out in the badlands – we catch only a single glimpse of the monster himself, paying an awkward social call on the gated hilltop mansion Tate shared with director Roman Polanski, to which he would send emissaries on a murderous return mission near summer’s end.

*Tarantino’s reverence of the movie theater as a quasi-religious waystation is evident throughout “Hollywood”, but shines in a wonderful, late, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sequence where iconic local neon theater marquees light up one after another, just after night has fallen. 

As narrative tactics go, the Tate gambit is a fairly insidious one, though not altogether improper. This isn’t some cheap movie of the week retelling, but, rather, a sprawling meditation, heavy on obsessive detail but nevertheless highly fictionalized, on Hollywood as both a place and an idea, an occupation and a lifestyle, taking place in and around the summer of ’69, and the Manson Family murders are but one prominent aspect, just as vital and yet coincidental to the action as Marcellus Wallace crossing the wrong intersection was in Pulp Fiction. Instead, Tarantino zeroes in on the tricky, goofy, equally profound and pitiful friendship between Tate’s next door neighbor, a water-treading TV cowboy, and the washed up stunt double who makes ends meet as his driver, housesitter, handyman, and all-purpose caretaker. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, swinging for the fences), a reasonably famous, monstrously neurotic small screen black hat with functional alcoholism, a career at low ebb, and a house in the Hollywood Hills he can no longer afford, certainly needs taking care of, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, so cool the next step is cryogenic stasis), an unflappable, self-amused military vet turned unemployable stuntman dogged by accusations of foul play in his wife’s untimely death, is the man for that or almost any other job. Using the Dalton/Booth bromance, with Tate and the Mansons as a flexible counterpoint, allows Tarantino to ruminate and/or comment on any number of loose threads in the fabric of his backdrop – Hollywood dreams at various stages of ripening and decay; insiders vs. outsiders; how the straight and hippie cultures coexisted; climbers occupying opposing rungs on the ladder of success; faint stirrings of feminism amongst the entrenched patriarchy; the last gasp of the studio system – in addition to all the on-set and in-theater stuff over which he really geeks out.

How many liberties Tarantino takes with the period and a conspicuous number of its prominent names (Sharon Tate, Charles Manson, Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski, Steve McQueen, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, etc.) isn’t for me to say with any authority, especially not when so many others of varying qualifications have already chimed in. What he has constructed here is not just an acting showcase** – Pitt plays Booth as an IED with a smiley face painted on it, polite, deferential, and ready to punish any errant step, while DiCaprio, so astonishing as the vile slave-owner in Django Unchained, completely one-ups that performance here, steering Dalton into the teeth of his tailspin and channeling exponential turmoil into the real-time conjuration of his best work ever (for both actor and “actor”) – but also a full-service vehicle for ego-feeding, consequence-free, multi-directional wish fulfillment, the more sensuous and sensational the better. To wit: Haven’t you ever wanted to be rich and famous? A movie star, even? To speed on the ragged edge of control through the Hollywood Hills in a purring convertible? Or to sit in a private pool and see those hills stretch out below you, majestic, vertiginous, bigger than life, as you survey your domain? Ever wanted to visit the set of your favorite TV show? Or be interviewed? Or watch yourself on the big screen, flanked by a suspiciously adoring audience? Have a peer whisper in your ear that you’re the best they’ve ever seen? Ever wanted to attend a party at the notorious original Playboy mansion? Or, and I’m just throwing this out there, roast cartoon Nazis alive in their command center with a well-placed flamethrower? It’s never a…wholly…implausible leap from one high to the next.

**As only befits such a shimmering, overstuffed undertaking, “Hollywood” boasts a stunt cast for the ages, including not just megastars like DiCaprio, Pitt, and the ascendant Robbie, but industry royalty like Al Pacino as a power player with extra relish, Bruce Dern as a cranky convalescent, and Kurt Russell as the non-plussed stunt coordinator on Dalton’s new movie, plus Timothy Olyphant as Dalton’s rival on and off screen, Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning sticking out from amongst the Manson Family rabble, and the late Luke Perry as the on screen hostage negotiator who bears uncomfortable witness to the aforementioned acting epiphany. DiCaprio really shoots out the lights in that sequence, hidden within the narrative of Dalton’s latest movie. It’s a performance that Pacino himself, if few others, might well have pulled off, in a role that, Western trappings aside, he probably would’ve killed for in his younger days. 

Whatever your opinion of Tarantino as a filmmaker – and clever, blinkered, exhilarating, ponderous, visionary, and self-indulgent to a fault are all legitimate answers – there is a reason that his every new release is an event. No one makes movies quite like he does. Tarantino’s films are shot through with idiosyncrasies and detours that would not survive a studio focus tester or review board interested in continued gainful employment, and reflect and explore his obsessions – with conversation as an aphrodisiac, with criminals both aspiring and legit who flame out as a byproduct of their addiction to being cool, with the history and cumulative cache of popular cinema on an almost totemic level – to a heedless degree, and with a level of care that actively repels undecided or unimpressed viewers even as it draws in everyone else. The end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, as you might have feared and/or already heard, pure bloody chaos, strange and sickening and damned near hypnotic in its absurdity and relentless intensity, and will similarly draw battle lines across the psyches of anybody who sees it. But it still plays fair, more or less, both with the letter and spirit of what has come before it and with the world that Tarantino has here created, one he loves dearly, whatever the level of artifice involved. There’s a reason that, during the downtown showing of The Wrecking Crew, we’re watching Robbie, as Tate, reacting as she watches Sharon Tate, the genuine article, flirt on screen with Matt Flynn. There’s a reason the crossroads Western that holds the key to Dalton’s career is not only no throwaway matter but every bit as dramatic and well-written in its way as the movie that contains it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels so personal because it is personal to its unusual and uniquely gifted architect, and the splendor and urgency on display here almost can’t help but make a lasting impression.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019) 3.5/4 stars

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