If it’s true that the devil is in the details, Quentin Tarantino has done his devilish best to transport us back in time fifty years for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, his latest mélange of fact and fiction. From the vintage Columbia Pictures logo to a bogus promo for the TV series Bounty Law, everything looks and feels authentic. (See Steve McQueen’s Wanted: Dead or Alive for comparison.) With an able assist from visual effects maestro John Dykstra, Tarantino has replicated vintage Los Angeles to the letter. Theater marquees are playing the appropriate movies and the audio from AM station KHJ is broadcasting the songs, commercials, headlines and chatter one would have heard in 1969.
The lives of his three main characters fit neatly into this landscape. Leonardo DiCaprio plays former TV star Rick Dalton, whose career is waning as he’s reduced to taking guest shots on other actors’ series. He maintains a close friendship with his longtime stunt double Brad Pitt, an easygoing guy who has no illusions or expectations. Meanwhile, Margot Robbie plays a real person, up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate, who’s married to director Roman Polanski and living next door to DiCaprio in the Hollywood hills. She’s so excited about her part in the Dean Martin action movie The Wrecking Crew that she goes to watch herself onscreen at a matinee at Westwood’s Bruin Theater.
So far, so good. But as in his most recent films, the talented Tarantino apparently has no one looking over his shoulder offering constructive criticism or tightening the reins. How else to explain a pointlessly protracted scene-within-a-scene featuring DiCaprio and TV cowboy star Timothy Olyphant? Or Al Pacino’s glorified cameo as a caricature of an oily agent? At least his character provides a plot point, suggesting that DiCaprio reboot his career by making Westerns in Italy, which many fading Hollywood stars did at that time. Why is there voice-over narration in the early part of the film and an abrupt return of this storytelling device after more than an hour without it? Where is all of this leading?
If you’ve read anything about the picture you know the answer: we’re heading toward the bloody slaughter of innocent people by members of the Charles Manson “family.” Tarantino sets this up early on by having Manson and one of his female followers looking for the house where “Terry [Melcher] and Dennis Wilson” live. By introducing real-life characters and references, the filmmaker leads us up a garden path for the express purpose of bamboozling us, as he did in the climax of Inglourious Basterds.
Like that earlier film, this one offers an overlong re-creation of a time period that enables Tarantino to exercise his imagination and inject a dizzying dose of violence into the mix, flouting history in the process. It’s like listening to a drawn-out shaggy-dog story where the punchline isn’t worth the effort to get there.
On the plus side, the stars are at their best, walking definitions of screen charisma. DiCaprio captures the vulnerability of a guy who’s achieved success that he hasn’t necessarily earned and now is plagued by self-doubt. Pitt has never been more likable, and Robbie is a perfect candidate to play the beautiful and cheerful starlet.
Tarantino has found parts for members of his repertory company including Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Clu Gulager, and a host of others in mostly fleeting appearances, including Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Clifton Collins, Jr., and Lena Dunham, to name just a few. There is also credit I believe to be unprecedented. It reads “Tim Roth (cut).” Never has an actor wound up being excised from a film with such ceremony.
All of this may be fodder for Tarantinophiles but doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. It’s nice that he got to shoot at the fabled Musso & Frank’s Grill in Hollywood, which looks exactly the way it did half a century ago. And there’s Easter-egg meat in having Olyphant playing James Stacy, who really did star in a Western series called Lancer, and whose exit on a motorcycle anticipates a real-life incident that only people with long memories will recall.
Tarantino is an omnivore of popular culture; he has no need to prove this again. This movie reveals ambition but drowns in excess—not the campy excess of Kill Bill, parts 1 and 2, which bore his indelible stamp. Can such a slow, meandering mess be the work of the writer-director who gave us Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown? I long for another work of that caliber and feel certain Tarantino has it in him to deliver the goods. Once upon a Time…in Hollywood is just an elaborate time-filler.