“Tender” doesn’t spring to mind when it comes to the films of Quentin Tarantino, but that’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. The ’60s-set drama doesn’t lack for Tarantino’s trademark motormouth dialogue or over-the-top violence, but that’s all secondary. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood celebrates movies, both as an art form and an industry, with a subdued, philosophical take that is at once beautiful and brutal.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a star, formerly the lead of a Western TV series called Bounty Law, but the sheen of fame around him has started to dull. After an unsuccessful attempt at breaking into movies, he’s been relegated to playing the villain of the week on shows starring younger, hipper actors. As his new agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) tells him, his status as a has-been is going to cement if he doesn’t make a change soon.
Every period in the history of show business has its own story of fading stars, whether it be the transition from black-and-white to color, or the current shift toward franchise juggernauts, or even Tarantino’s own arrival onto the scene as the hip new thing. And to a certain degree, the best-buds dynamic between Dalton and his longtime stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who remains the TV actor’s anchor as he struggles with his changing status, is timeless, too. But Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood can’t be divorced from the time in which it takes place.
The film is set — as has been the subject of controversy ever since it was announced — in 1969, leading up to the Charles Manson family murders. It’s not a coincidence that one of the early revelations of the movie is that Dalton’s new neighbors are Roman Polanski (played by Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), though exactly how that arrangement unfolds, I’ll leave to you to find out.
The important thing is that, though Tate isn’t given all that much dialogue, she’s still easily the most human character in the film. There’s something outsized about both Dalton and Booth, as is the norm with Tarantino’s characters, but not so with Tate. While multiple characters act as mouthpieces for Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, Robbie as Tate serves as a similar stand-in for the degree of emotion that film can elicit, free of pretense and of the dick-measuring that cinephilia often invites. She becomes more than the murder victim she’s arguably now best known as — Tarantino gives her a life outside of that awful fate.
That kind of wishful thinking is an engine for the laid-back drama. Even the most exploitative relationships still seem to contain a nugget of earnestness, and on a more meta level, Tarantino himself is, in a way, getting to work with the stars he’s always idolized. It’s not just Tate who appears as one of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’s famous faces — Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) show up, too.
Though the films and shows that Tarantino references are of the era, the film feels most of a feather with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! as an excuse for the filmmakers to play around in (and pay tribute to) a bygone era, and with Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, as the shaggy-dog latest work from a known provocateur that ends up being much kinder and more sentimental than expected. There’s a lot in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood that feels like it was shot simply because Tarantino wanted to. Instead of moving the story along, the scenes, almost hang-out sessions, give us a better sense of these characters, and afford a little more time in the filmmaker’s idealized fairy-tale world.
Rick hates the younger crowd that erodes his struggling stardom. At one point, the TV star, dressed in a bathrobe, angrily waves a blender full of margarita at a car full of hippies, then slurps out of it to make a point. But to Tarantino, whose own brand of shock and awe is now a known quantity, if not on the Dalton downturn just yet, growing old and being forgotten is just another part of the show business machine he loves. The passage of time doesn’t negate the greatness of the art that may have since been forgotten, or negate the love that audiences once had for them. It’s fitting that DiCaprio and Pitt are often referred to as the last true “movie stars.” In a landscape full of franchises to which actors become wholly tied, they’re relics of a bygone era.
They’re also at the top of their respective games, both now unafraid of seeming uncool on screen. Rick is a blowhard, moved to tears by his own perceived greatness just as quickly as he can fly into a rage at his own ineptitude. And Cliff, who at first seems like the epitome of cool (with Pitt practically setting the screen on fire as he exercises every watt of star power he’s ever had), still succumbs to moments of silliness as the film winds to its end. Like Tate, these are human characters, even as they’re larger than life.
The film itself follows that trajectory, setting up set-pieces that seem like trademark Tarantino wildness, but the parts of the movie that are the most striking are those in which the writer-director forgoes telling us how much he loves film and simply lets us feel it. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is easily the quietest and most meditative of his works, ending with a startlingly soft and sweet moment that contextualizes everything that came before it as, ultimately, a love letter.
Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is in theaters now.