Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to taking liberties with the past and bringing viewers along for the guts-and-glory-filled ride. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, his latest entry in revisionist history, invokes the feel of 1969 Tinseltown from the point of view of nearly washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two friends slightly past their prime, trying to be relevant in a Hollywood that’s slowly passing them by. We’re dropped into their storyline just as the Manson Family shows up hitchhiking on the streets of Los Angeles, and as Rick reveals that his new neighbors are Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
We’ve heard half of this story before — and it ends badly. But why are Rick and Cliff here? Tarantino brings us fully into the lives of these two characters who might seem inconsequential amid the glitz and glamour of the time, and we become so invested in their narrative that it’s a little disappointing to switch gears. As such, when the film moves to what Roman and his gorgeous (if somewhat one-note) wife are up to as they enjoy the upper echelons of Hollywood’s social scene — the crown jewel of which is a lavish party at the Playboy Mansion — it feels like a different film entirely, set in a world that’s a little shallower, a lot richer and definitely a few more clicks removed from reality.
Rick and Cliff used to be a big deal, but age (and Rick’s alcoholism) have taken their toll. The film opens with Rick contemplating a move to Italy, where he could star in spaghetti Westerns instead of playing the bad guy in TV shows where his main job is to lose fights to up-and-coming stars. Cliff, who’s been a loyal friend for years, now drives Rick around during the day (see: alcoholism), runs errands and hangs out at his friend’s house in the Hollywood hills.
Most of the film’s 165-minute running time is a buddy movie, spent with the pair (and Cliff’s show-stealing dog, Brandy) together and apart, as they navigate the strata of the city, from its dark underbelly to the sets and soundstages where fantasy is given life. Some of the film’s greatest joys come from their easy friendship and the effortless, hilarious way DiCaprio and Pitt play off one another. I’m confident this won’t be the last time we see them sharing so much screen time.
Some other great pleasures emerge from Cliff’s run-ins with the Family, like when he picks up waifish, seductive Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, aka Andie MacDowell’s daughter) and takes her back to Spahn Movie Ranch, where she and her friends are squatting. Charlie’s not there, but we can feel his presence in claustrophobic shots of filthy interior spaces, run-down equipment and his acolytes, who seem to move and act with one mind as they corner their unwelcome visitor.
All of these layers are painstakingly re-created by Tarantino and his crew, who capture the neon dream of Hollywood and its seedier side as characters cruise by restaurants, stop into cinemas and hang out on street corners and sets with familiar faces like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). We know it’s all fake — as do they — but buying into the spectacle is part of the fun.
As Rick says, “Unless you own a house in Hollywood, you don’t really live there.” It’s bull, but we get it: Total immersion is the best method if you’re going to commit fully to a fantasy. In the same way, we believe the narrative and its shocking outcome, even though Tarantino repeatedly confronts us with the artifice of filmmaking as the invisible architecture of the camera reveals itself again and again.
And then there’s the title itself — referencing Sergio Leone’s greatest Western which, of course, was filmed in Italy and which also openly establishes itself as a fairy tale. But that didn’t make it any less of a damn good story, either.
Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre