Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is fussy, obsessive and amiable

Tarantino dashes expectations by promising a Manson Murders movie and instead making a micro-managed, three-hour hangout movie.

Quentin Tarantino’s films have always had a kind of Where Is Waldo effect on me. I come out of them dazed, obsessed with the things that I may have missed while looking at something else. It’s not so much that his films are dexterous puzzles that leave clues lying around, it’s that they’re so utterly packed with shit that I never really feel like I’ve actually seen it after the first viewing. That’s doubly evident with his latest: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an absolute smorgasbord of Tarantino’s obsessions, a fetishistic vehicle tailor-made to explore the colours, textures, sights and sounds of a bygone era that he barely experienced himself.

Considering that Tarantino is a filmmaker who has always gone on (and on and on) about the things that he loves, the fact that this ninth opus is masturbatory is not particularly surprising. It is, however, masturbatory to the point that if he had released a 165-minute video of self-pleasure, it would still be neck-and-neck in that race.

It’s not a nostalgic piece in the sense that something like American Graffiti is: Tarantino was only six years old in 1969 and, while it’s undeniable that that pop-culture sponge was already in effect at the time, this is not exactly a “back in my day” exercise in narcissism. Nevertheless, it’s a real trip through the popular culture of 1969, but not the kaleidoscopic hippie acid freakout that so many films and TV shows tend to lean upon. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is a loving paean to the disappeared mainstream middle ground: cowboy TV shows, drive-ins, spaghetti westerns, Matt Helm movies, easy-listening covers of rock songs and all of the other cultural detritus that was popular enough to make money but not enough to leave a trace.

Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio) was the lead of a popular cowboy show called Bounty Law in the 1950s; since then, he hasn’t exactly fallen on hard times, but his career essentially consists of bad-guy roles in TV shows led by younger, fresher or more popular actors. He’s entertaining the idea of entering the lucrative, productive but generally unappreciated realm of Spaghetti Westerns in Italy, something that agent Murray Schwarz (Al Pacino) is very keen on. Rick’s best friend is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his former stunt double turned gofer, driver and general lackadaisical butler, who spends most of his time with Rick even if he actually lives in a trailer on a lot behind a drive-in theatre.

And so for about two hours and change, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a loping, ambling hang-out of a movie, filled with digressions and anecdotes and wallpapered with the music and movies of 1969. Every time Cliff gets behind the wheel of a car, there’s a period-appropriate needledrop (usually garage-inflected pop, blue-eyed soul or easy listening rather than, say, the Doors) and usually a radio promo spot for a more-or-less forgotten movie. There are long sequences that are essentially just Pitt driving down Los Angeles streets that have been lovingly recreated to be chock-full of theatre marquees, diners, shabby-chic neon signs and other icons of Hollywood’s last hurrah.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately, like everything else about 1969, about how it all changed that year. The studio system was crumbling, and the years before Easy Rider were a sort of confused time where television and mainstream commercial cinema were sort of interchangeable, often focusing on similar stories (cops, cowboys, etc.) and leaning on a new permissiveness. It was the last sputterings of classic Hollywood, which had already seen its outlines blur by the arrival of TV. Tarantino also celebrates the kind of men who populated that era of Hollywood: tanned, scarred tough guys, puffy and rugged leading men, avuncular agents in double-breasted pinstripe suits who chomp on cigars at Musso & Frank’s… There’s certainly a surface-level conservatism to the proceedings, what with the characters’ general hatred of change and hippiedom, that inscribes this as the most reactionary old-man film of Tarantino’s oeuvre — provided, of course, that you see Cliff and Rick as Tarantino analogues, which is certainly the least interesting of takes. It’s not so much a “things used to be much better” movie; it’s a “man, I really liked the way things used to be” movie.

The first two hours of the film are nearly pitch-perfect Tarantino, a loose and genial buddy flick that moves at the digressive pace of Tarantino talking about movies. It flits in and out of long flashback sequences and makes space for nearly an entire episode in which Dalton cameos as a Dennis Hopper-esque heavy. While it lacks the propulsive energy of his best movies, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood nevertheless makes a case for Tarantino the elegiac, unhurried filmmaker.

I focus on those two first hours because there’s also a whole other element of the film: Sharon Tate. Tarantino traces a few days in the life of the sunny blonde actress who lost her life at the hands of the Manson Family in 1969. Much ado has been made about how Tarantino made a film about the brutal murder of five people by perhaps the most infamous of all cult leaders, but it’s not quite that simple. Tate, Jay Sebring and Charles Manson feature very lightly in the plot; Tate is Dalton’s direct neighbour, but the majority of her screentime is eaten up by a scene in which she watches herself in the Dean Martin-led Bond-ish comedy The Wrecking Crew.

Tarantino obviously knows that you can’t purport to make a film about the death of classic Hollywood without invoking the event that is often considered the catalyzing episode of the time period, but to say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Manson movie is disingenuous. The Family features prominently in the form of a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) who gets Cliff to drive her to Spahn Ranch, but even this fits in with the film’s loping, freewheeling tone. What’s less organic is the ending, which is not nearly as morally reprehensible as most have assumed it will be but is also so thoroughly indebted to Tarantino’s own films that it feels like the director is somehow ripping himself off. 

It’s the least surprising aspect of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in fact — not so much that the ending is whiffed (because it really does work pretty well, in the grand scheme of things) but because it takes a path so often travelled by Tarantino. The film is so thoroughly busting at the seams with stuff of every shade that it’s an often overwhelming experience that ends with exactly the expected amount of whelm.

Still, there are worse things than an insanely detailed and lovingly recreated Valentine to a hyper-specific period of time. If Tarantino is a 10/10 when it comes to his obsession with this stuff, I’m at least a 6. I’m the kind of person who gets a shudder of delight when a character is shown — in close-up — moving the needle to the third track on a record because the needle drop Tarantino needs is the third track on that side. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems like it was made for me, which is perhaps why I felt so let down by the ending. ■

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 26. Watch the trailer below.

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