On the bright side, Quentin Tarantino’s position in our movie culture—a combo of auteurist icon and fan-boy fetish object—has elevated the stature of comedy directors, who have never gotten the respect they deserve. At the same time, we must accept that Tarantino will never make a serious movie—by which is meant, in the simplest terms, a movie that takes itself seriously.
Which isn’t the worst thing, perhaps; at its best, Tarantino’s hotly anticipated “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” is enormously entertaining, even exhilarating, with performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio at their most charismatic and an evocation of the exhausted ’60s that is alternately fascinating in its rococo detail and cruel in its judgments. Was so much of the period’s cultural soup really that tacky, tawdry and musically trite? For those without real-time memories, yes, it was. Thanks, Quentin, for reminding us. Younger viewers will think a lot of “Once Upon a Time...” is a joke. It is often more like a documentary.
We must accept that Quentin Tarantino will never make a serious movie—by which is meant a movie that takes itself seriously.
But what it mostly is, as suggested by the title, is fairy tale, albeit fairy tale without a moral. Moral conclusions seem anathema to Tarantino, which probably explains his popularity among a fan base more interested in irony than sincerity. Perhaps this is all symptomatic of our time, but the movie still seems an opportunity lost, especially considering the ripeness of the setting, namely 1969 in Hollywood.
Anyone with an even a vague notion of Hollywood history knows this is the time and place of the Manson murders. The crimes haunt the proceedings throughout, particularly as we meet and follow the starlet Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie), who arrives in the Hollywood Hills as the bride of the director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), riding the wave of his big hit “Rosemary’s Baby.” Her joyousness—about where she is, who she is—is infectious. Much of the film is about the bloom of youth and its transient nature. She is its incarnation.
Anyone with an even a vague notion of Hollywood history knows this is the time and place of the Manson murders.
The ones losing their youth, and their currency in Hollywood, are Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a slightly gone-to-seed TV western star who will attempt a career comeback via spaghetti westerns (see Clint Eastwood), and his sidekick, Cliff Booth (Pitt), Rick’s stunt double and the guy assigned to drive him everywhere in his yellow El Dorado (Rick having lost his license after a D.U.I. conviction). The two are intended as a Hollywood yin and yang. Rick, whom DiCaprio imbues with a delicious combination of anxiety, brio and self-recriminations, is trying to breathe life into his career—although as Al Pacino’s slightly shifty and distinctively spelled Marvin Schwarzs tells him (Tarantino has never been allergic to ethnic stereotypes), playing heavies in other people’s TV shows has him on the fast track to nowhere.
Cliff, alternately, is a guy who is comfortable with himself, whose own career as a stuntman has been derailed by becoming Rick’s gofer but who is O.K. with that. He doesn’t need the things Rick needs. Which happen to include Cliff.
Setting up the characters, especially Rick and Cliff, via the recreated movie scenes and parodied TV westerns and comical cutaways, is right in Tarantino’s wheelhouse. He clearly relishes recapturing the period flavor, and, of course, portraying life as it is lived through and in movies. What he doesn’t have here is an actual story, other than what he borrows from history or leaves out.
For all its virtuosity, “Once Upon a Time…” is something of a stunt itself, and a middle finger to anyone boring enough to take a sober attitude toward cultural influence.
The Rick-Cliff trajectory and that of Sharon Tate unfold cheek-by-jowl. Though Rick lives next door to the infamous 10050 Cielo Drive address of the Polanskis, they have never even met. Cliff, on the other hand, lives in a trailer parked behind the Van Nuys Drive-In with his adorable pit bull, Brandy (who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palm Dog Award). At an oblique angle to all this is the Manson Family, with whom Cliff has a memorable encounter when he drives a fetching family member, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), to the Spahn Movie Ranch, which Manson has taken over in league with Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), Gypsy (Lena Dunham) and the rest of the spooky-in-the-daylight wigged-out hippies. There is no shortage of what is generally called stunt casting. (Bruce Dern, just one of the too-many-to-list familiar faces popping in and out of “Once Upon a Time…” is amusingly nasty as the bedridden George Spahn).
For all its virtuosity, “Once Upon a Time…” is something of a stunt itself, and a middle finger to anyone boring enough to take a sober attitude toward cultural influence, never mind responsibility. One of the Mansonites, Sadie (Mikey Madison), has a revelation: They have all been brought up on television made in Hollywood, television rife with violence and murder, so they have been taught to murder by television. Let’s murder the people who taught us to murder! It’s a ridiculous line of reasoning, and Tarantino is not only laughing at all the would-be censors in the world—and making a madwoman their nightmare alter ego—he then launches into a sequence so horrifically violent that my companion at a screening grasped my arm in terror.
He is not necessarily wrong about media and violence and censorship. But he doesn’t give us anything else. We know what Rick and Cliff and Sharon Tate mean—he barely has to waste time setting them up as characters because they conform so easily to expectations and what we already know about them as types. What do the Manson Family members mean? What is evil in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”? Where does it begin and end, and where does it come from?
The deranged hippies in Tarantino’s portrayal are rendered absurd, and thus comic, and ultimately no more than props in what is ultimately an adolescent exercise. Tarantino likes to make fun of cultural ephemera but ultimately doesn’t rise very high above it.