You could never accuse Quentin Tarantino of being a brief storyteller, but even by his loquacious cinematic standards, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is shambolic, a shaggy, unkempt story that wanders to and fro, sliding back and forth in time with extended flashbacks and multiple shows-within-a-show. The pacing is fine, but it is slow and will probably challenge anyone who sees Tarantino’s work as only bouts of explosive dialogue and violence. Sure, there is violence—though not as much as his recent films have indulged—and yes, the dialogue is spectacular. But Hollywood is mostly occupied with its own meditation on cinema in 1969, which Tarantino recreates with loving, obsessive detail, as the old gives way to the new. This is acutely represented by Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving inarguably his best performance), a fading movie star who is on the long, slow slide to oblivion, and his neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, incandescent), who is just tasting her first cup of success.
Tarantino gets DiCaprio to turn his preoccupation with physical suffering into something subtler but no less tangible—Rick Dalton is gross. He hacks, he spits, he slumps, and shuffles in a permanent booze-haze, he’s always sort of sweaty and seems unwell. (A nice bit of texture is the implication that Rick might actually be really sick, something the film never bothers answering, narrowly denying such clichés as coughing into a bloody handkerchief.) In contrast is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s stunt double turned dogsbody and friend. Cliff, though bearing many scars, is a relative picture of middle-aged health: still fit, tanned, and physically capable despite drinking and smoking as much as Rick. Hollywood shuffles between Rick and Cliff, drifting through their respective days as Rick works on a Western show and Cliff does whatever tasks Rick needs completed and comes into contact with the Manson Family.
Intermittently, Hollywood will visit the world of Sharon Tate, newly married to Roman Polanski (who appears only in cameo, portrayed by Rafal Zawierucha) and just becoming the toast of the town. Sharon streaks across Hollywood like a comet—she is bright and effervescent and so alive. In one scene, Tarantino cuts between Robbie-as-Sharon watching the real Sharon Tate in scenes from The Wrecking Crew. This whole scene seems to exist for one purpose, to remind audiences of Tate’s life, and restore her to the living, to memorialize her achievement and not her death. In fact, Tarantino seems totally uninterested in her murder. He is way more into dragging the Manson Family as a bunch of dirty hippies who ruined the best party in town. Hollywood is not invested in aggrandizing the Manson Family. Tarantino reveals their squalor, both literal and moral, and the one time Charles Manson appears, he just looks like a nut (Damon Herriman will get a longer look as Manson when he reprises the role later this year in Mindhunter season two). There is nothing impressive or charismatic about Manson. He’s a f-cking tourist in Hollywood, a wanna-be on the fringes, even further outside the central circle than Rick and Cliff.
Hollywood is loaded with interesting asides and amusements—I would happily watch any one of the fake Western shows Tarantino creates—but it also has a number of unraveled threads. Cliff has a history of violence, particularly against women, which is unexplored and actually discomfiting in context of the ending. There is a slight nod at the way men protect one another in this industry, and how that allows dangerous men to thrive, but it never fully connects to any of the larger themes in the film. It all just seems like a way of establishing Cliff’s mean streak, but there are other ways to do that. Still, there is a lot going on under the surface in Hollywood. Where many Tarantino films roar, this one whispers, and it probably won’t fully unwind without multiple viewings.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is as full of cinematic homages, references, and folderol as ever was in a Tarantino film, but Hollywood reflects a more melancholic and wistful Tarantino. This is a film that suggests Tarantino is aware of passing time—of his passing time—and while it doesn’t quite sink into a lament, it is a film that is keenly aware of one moment when The Culture changed and something precious and intangible was lost. The result is a meandering, pensive portrait and wish fulfillment of the brand only Tarantino can deliver.
Attached: Margot Robbie attends the Australians in Film screening of 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' at the Writers Guild Theater on July 23, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.