No one would ever classify Quentin Tarantino as a documentary filmmaker. His sometimes glorious mashups of genres, styles and cultures capped with legendary violence have made him the leading American auteur director. His vision, writing and craft are uniquely his own. Audiences have a strong idea of what they’ll see on the screen at a Tarantino movie, but they can also expect to be surprised.
Typically this unfolds in Tarantino’s alternate universe timeline. Historical facts mean very little in Tarantino’s world. This is how, for example, “Inglourious Basterds” ends with German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler being killed in a movie theater in occupied Paris, ending World War II. It’s a sort of revenge porn. No harm, no foul really. It’s not like people actually believe Tarantino’s version over every history of World War II ever written.
After I saw “Inglourious Basterds” in 2009 a friend asked what I thought of it. I told him it had the wrong title. It should have been called “Once Upon a Time in Occupied France” or perhaps “The Good, the Bad and the Nazi.” Tarantino is the only director in America who could turn a World War II movie into a Spaghetti Western.
So it was with a sense of amusement for me that Tarantino’s latest film is titled, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” He could have easily called “Django Unchained” “Once Upon a Time in the Antebellum South,” too.
But “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is less like a Spaghetti Western than any of his last three films — “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight.” Outside of Spaghetti Westerns being a key part of the plot, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” has only a slight resemblance to its immediate predecessors. It’s set in 1969 at a recognizable time in Hollywood with a significant event in history about to happen and so rich in period detail that a Los Angeles Times writer referred to it as “nostalgia porn.” Note to self, lose use of the word porn in similar descriptions. In fact, a case can be made that the cars, neon, movie posters, clothing and TV and films are the biggest stars in the nearly three-hour movie.
The film is essentially a buddy movie with Leonardo DiCaprio portraying Rick Dalton, an actor largely in westerns whose career is at breaking point and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, Dalton’s longtime stunt double, driver /handy man and closest friend. Tarantino has traditionally taken standard movie tropes like this and turned them upside down and usually adds a very 1970s spin. “Reservoir Dogs,” his first major film and still among his best, is a basic caper movie. “Pulp Fiction,” his most popular film, is a gangster story. “Jackie Brown,” perhaps his most cohesive, is a crime and cops story. “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and “Kill Bill Vol. 2” stand as his kung fu movies. I’ve already mentioned his World War II movie and his racism film. “The Hateful Eight” is his western but turned into an exceedingly violent drawing room drama / mystery.
The two friends roam from the Hollywood Hills home where Rick Dalton is next-door neighbors with the director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate, to movie lots where Dalton is acting as a guest star in a TV series. To reveal much more would do a disservice to those who haven’t seen the film yet. Part of the tension that built as I watched in the theater on Saturday afternoon was the knowledge that unspeakable violence involving Charles Manson and his band of hippies is at hand. A trip to the retired Spahn Movie Ranch when Cliff takes a young female hitchhiker there is packed with suspense. The Manson family took over the nearly deserted compound and the danger feels palpable every minute Cliff is there, confident that he has the upper hand and not understanding or giving much of a damn about the potential danger of the moment.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is full of interesting and sometimes great moments. Nearly all include Pitt who steals the movie as the loyal friend with a murky past who knows how to handle himself. He’s the true cowboy in the mix and emblematic of a time in America when it was the establishment vs. the hippies. He’s a non-conformist with old ideas. While Pitt shines, DiCaprio perhaps turns in the far stronger acting performance. He’s a man struggling with where his career is going and at a loss of what to do about it. He’s got more than a few demons, too. Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate has a wonderful little scene where she goes to a movie theater in Hollywood to watch her new movie, “The Wrecking Crew,” a campy vehicle where a broken down Dean Martin plays a singing secret agent — James Bond, American Style.
Of course, everyone knows what actually happened in August of 1969 when members of the Manson family drove into the Hollywood Hills with directions to kill everyone in the house and leave a message. Tarantino’s alternate universe has other ideas.
So where does “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” rank among Tarantino’s films? That would be for someone else to say. In many ways, Tarantino is trying to tell too many different stories at one time creating a puzzle where all the pieces don’t always exactly fit. It won’t be among my favorite Tarantino films. I like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” better. It’s in the next cut for me with “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill Vol. 2.” All are Tarantino films I’ll watch anytime. And I’m sure to revisit “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” soon.