Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood: Tarantino's audacious pop-cultural gift basket has a warm core

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

 Wistful, funny and complicated in interesting ways, Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, may be his warmest film since Jackie Brown - which may not be what you expected to hear about a movie set against the background of the 1969 Manson murders.

There’s always something going on her to tickle the eye and brain: Attention-grabbing compositions, riffs on imaginary ‘60s TV programs and movies -- an Italian Bond knock-off, Westerns both of the Spaghetti and New-Hollywood variety. The story moves in slow-hang periods and abrupt time jumps, with unpredictable bits of voice-over, a soundtrack wallpapered with ‘60s pop and allusions to innumerable other films, including some to Tarantino’s own work. 

Brad Pitt is the stunt double for an over-the-hill TV Western star (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Brad Pitt is the stunt double for an over-the-hill TV Western star (Leonardo DiCaprio)

At the core of the whole cinematic frolic, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a buddy picture starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a slightly over-the-hill TV Western star of a recently-cancelled show called Bounty Law, who’s now struggling to get guest appearances as villains on more popular shows. His only financial security is the house he owns on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, right next to the Tate-Polanski home.

His best friend and drinking buddy is his former stunt double and now personal assistant, Clint Booth (Pitt). While Rick lives in his mansion, Clint lives in a trailer near a drive-in movie theatre with his mastiff, Brandy. 

As two handsome leading men, now in middle-age, DiCaprio and Pitt vaguely suggest a downbeat version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but without the twinkling.  Their contrasting performances converge beautifully. DiCaprio’s Rick, the actor of the pair, is always on the edge of a temper tantrum or tears. Clint, bluff but wary, carries himself as man at ease with violence – and has a rumoured history of it.

The Leo and Brad show is far from the whole package here. The casting is deep, and famous, familiar faces flit by:  Al Pacino as Dalton’s agent, Tarantino regulars Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell as movie stunt doubles, Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning as Manson girls (Fanning as future wannabe Presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme), and Bruce Dern, as the owner of the storied Spahn Ranch where the Manson cult squatted. 

Other actors as celebrities include Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Emile Hirsch as hairdresser, Jay Sebring.

There are a couple of long scenes of Rick onset of a Western movie that are fascinating – acting about acting. The best features young Julia Butters as an eight-year-old extremely serious thespian trying to prepare her part while Rick, snuffling, depressed and very hung-over, sits beside her, trying to make some human contact. The scene slows the movie’s pace down precariously but stands out as a set-piece drama.

Much of the time, you can forget about the specter of the killings at the Tate-Polanski home on Aug. 8-9 (followed by murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next night). But  looms over the film through most of its duration.  Well, there’s one Manson girl called Pussycat  (Margaret Qualley, of The Leftovers), in cut-off jeans and a crocheted top, who keeps trying to entice Cliff into giving her a ride and maybe come and meet Charlie.

As Manson’s most famous victim, the actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the pregnant spouse of Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), has her own separate storyline, in which she sort of floats by in her own golden bubble. There’s a long sequence where she goes to a movie house to spend a day, watching back to back screenings of the actual Sharon Tate, in a goofy comic role in the Dean Martin spy comedy, The Wrecking Crew. There, she is eternal.

While it’s best to give little away about Tarantino’s plot twists, let’s just say he’s about as faithful here to the historical record as he was in Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood plays in different registers of intensity, from mellow hang-time to pure frog-in-a-blender Tarantino mayhem. 

You may not love every item. But in this gift basket,  you can’t doubt how much the giver cares.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino. Starring: Leonard DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margo Robbie.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows at the Varsity, Scotiabank, Yonge-Dundas and Yonge-Eglinton theatres.