Review: 'Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood'

Friendship and flamethrowers abound in Quentin Tarantino's latest epic
ON SET: Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Quentin Tarantino's epic, 'Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood.'

One feels less like reviewing Once Upon A Time in... Hollywood, and more like writing Quentin Tarantino a letter that begins, "Thank you for retrieving my lost city."

The movie dreams of LA 1969, in a heatwave winter and half a year later during the fateful weekend of Aug. 8-9. It admires open freeways, brushy hills, blazing movie marquees, and colossal advertising signs that seem to flaunt every zoning law. One of several rhapsodic driving scenes has Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) crossing the San Fernando Valley at night. Coming up on his right is something that looks like a hallucination: a giant glowing blue X. Old Angelenos recognize this wonder as the delft-blue windmill from a Van de Kamp's coffee shop, its blades 20 feet long.

The film is about the partnership of a pair of unequal men. Cliff is the drinking buddy, chauffeur and stunt double for the skidding actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo di Caprio), who is getting paunchy from booze and living off the residuals of his 8-year-old TV hit Bounty Law.

That line in The Dark Knight—"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain"—tell it to Jimmy Carter or RBG. However, it is absolutely true for actors. A helpful agent (Al Pacino) points out that once every detective, cop and rancher on TV is through punching Dalton out, he'll be finished. Suffering from an emperor-sized hangover, Dalton tries to play the villain on an episode of the forgotten Western TV show Lancer. He can't remember his lines.

Booth is nerveless and solitary, and very athletic (going to fix a rooftop TV aerial, he scampers up the side of a house like a parkourist). But Booth's own career is in eclipse, because of what seems like QT's oblique reference to the #MeToo movement. Booth was found innocent of a capital crime. The circumstances were cloudy, but the gossip never stopped. And then he made things worse by calling out the one and only Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) when Lee was doing some bragging.

Dalton has a new neighbor: the velveteen-clad director Roman Polanksi and his new wife, the starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). In the film's most lyrical passage, Tate—young, pretty and in love with the world—goes for a walk in Westwood. She talks her way into a matinee of her newest movie, the second-worst Matt Helm film, The Wrecking Crew.

The introduction of the hippie villains commences with the sight of a lithe, plush-mouthed runaway called Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, terrific) who Cliff keeps encountering. This skinny moppet lives in a place Cliff knows well, the now-decrepit Spahn Movie Ranch. It's currently the residence of a commune full of hippies. Booth's arrival into this stage-Western town, with the wary freaks staring him down, parallels the show Dalton is doing in which a lone rider meets a Mexican town full of malos.

It's a nostalgic, gentle film, unrecognizable as the work of the man who directed Hateful Eight... right up until the grindhouse ending, when the prowlers arrive on that bad August night. Some would say the finish here tampers slightly with history. Inglourious Basterds concluded with Pitt branding a Nazi with a knife; as for Manson, he poked his own swastika in his forehead. QT's opinion of how to deal with this breed is well known.

One minor reason to love movies is that they offer the sight of formidable men. It's been almost 30 years since Pitt whipped off his shirt in Thelma and Louise; reprising the gesture on a roof overlooking LA, he defies time. One feels a great empathy for the crumbling Dalton, and sees the beauty in the friendship between the two men. This loving study of the bum's paradise is suffused with mellowness that goes beyond the smog-softened light, blue-gray at magic hour. The anxieties are either remote or kept at bay by pitchers of margaritas. Here is a serene easiness to everything.

Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood
R; 165 Mins.

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