Once Upon A Time In Hollywood features perhaps the most Quentin Tarantino-y shot of any Quentin Tarantino movie yet: wannabe movie star Sharon Tate (Robbie) with her dirty bare feet up on a cinema seat watching pretty much forgotten 1969 James Bond rip-off The Wrecking Crew starring Dean Martin. Yet foot fetishisms and cult movies are not the only QT obsession to be celebrated in his ninth movie; drive-ins, doughnuts, tracking shots following cars, key characters meeting at traffic lights, bubblegum pop music, reinventing forgotten actors (hello, TV Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond as film director Sam Wanamaker), and the joy of radio are all present and correct. OUATIH is a heady compendium of Tarantino inspirations, ideas and motifs, brilliantly made and perfectly performed, but perhaps lacking the zip, fun and intensity to make it your new favourite Tarantino flick.
At its heart, OUATIH is a likeable buddy movie between Burt Reynolds-alike TV actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stuntman-turned-gofer Cliff Booth (Pitt). Rick is the former star of ’50s Western show Bounty Law but, as pointed out by agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino in an over-extended cameo), is on the skids, playing villains opposite up-and-comers, subtly reinforcing his second-fiddle status. Tarantino has a blast sketching out Dalton’s career from fake TV featurettes to clips of films (‘The Fourteen Fists Of McCluskey’ sees Dalton flamethrower Nazis!) to brilliantly conceived posters (‘Operation Dyn-O-Mite!’). Best of all, Dalton defends himself over accusations of not being cast in a ’60s classic so Tarantino cheekily but seamlessly inserts DiCaprio into the famous flick. It’s the director at his most playful and OUATIH could have benefited a bit more from his silly side.
If Dalton is on the verge of becoming a has-been, his cohort, Cliff Booth, is a never-was, a stuntman who can’t get work so is forced to drive Rick around, living in a trailer and feeding his mutt. He also may or may not have killed his wife. Both QT alumni — DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, Pitt as Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds — the pair are mellow, enjoyable company radiating movie star chemistry from every pore (watch them watching TV show FBI). Pitt’s confident swagger and poise is present in every frame but DiCaprio adds different notes; Dalton is a man who can see that he is yesterday’s news and finds a poignancy as he comes up against the edge of his talent. Reading a pulp Western novel about a horse breaker with the genius name ‘Easy Breezy’, Dalton breaks down on recognising himself: “He’s not the best anymore. He’s coming to terms with what it’s like to become slightly more useless each day.” It’s a moment of heart rare in the director’s canon.
It’s Tarantino working in a less showboat-y, more mature mode, so pack patience with your popcorn.
The third star on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s walk of fame is Sharon Tate (Robbie), an actor on the brink of stardom and Manson murder infamy, bombing around LA in a sports car with husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and next-door neighbour of Rick Dalton. Much has been made of Tarantino’s treatment of Tate, barely giving her a voice, but what she lacks in dialogue, Robbie compensates for with gesture and charisma, Tarantino imbuing the character with affection. She might not have enough screen time to enter the Female Tarantino Characters Hall Of Fame — we salute you Mia Wallace, Jackie Brown, Beatrix Kiddo, Shosanna Dreyfus and Daisy Domergue — but she makes Tate register, especially when charming her way into seeing her own film for free. More memorable are The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, a vibrant, livewire hitchhiker and, best of all, Julia Butters as a loquacious eight-year-old actor reading a Walt Disney biography and espousing the Method (she can only be called by her character name). This is QT at his best: original, unexpected and delightful.
The three separate storylines — Dalton, Booth and Tate — form a mosaic depicting a fascinating era of American pop history, when old-school machismo met the progressive counter culture and one guard gave way to another. Yet what OUATIH doesn’t coalesce into is a gripping story. This is not the razor-wire tautness of Reservoir Dogs or the thrill of Pulp Fiction’s non linear razzle dazzle. Instead it provides a loose framework for scenes to run along different tracks. Some of the scenes are fantastic (Booth’s run-in with Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh), others drift (Dalton as a guest villain in TV Western Lancer). In the second half, a narrator becomes more prominent to shore up less surefooted storytelling. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find that killer QT line you’ll still be quoting at Christmas. It’s Tarantino working in a less showboat-y, more mature mode — it shares DNA with Jackie Brown — so pack patience with your popcorn.
As ever, the gear-shifts between tones come thick and fast — your expectations are continually and royally fucked. Cliff’s run-in with Manson’s followers (featuring Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning) is all set fair for an old-school Western showdown but goes to a completely different place. By the time Manson’s acolytes arrive for their night with destiny (or is it?), one of them delivers a chilling denouncement of Hollywood’s fascination with murder (“My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill”), invoking the film-creates-violence debate Tarantino has been battling his whole career. Moments later, the film jumps headfirst into a whole new sphere of madness altogether.
At every stage, the filmmaking is on point. Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography pops but never feels overly mannered, Arianne Phillips’ costume design is too stylish for words, and Harry Cohen’s dense, bravura sound design interweaves music, radio chat, adverts and TV chatter to spellbinding effect. It’s a film that courses with a love of moviemaking and Hollywood lore (a party sees Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen) and might be Tarantino’s most personal film to date; look out for a clutch of his repertory group actors and nods to his own universe (be sure to stay in your seats, QT is going MCU with an end-credits sting). It has a skein of melancholy, for a bygone age he couldn’t partake in, and possibly for his own career. This is reputedly his penultimate film, stopping at the magic ten. Even if its his own choice, the reverie of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood suggests he’ll miss it. And we’ll miss him too.