In the final half-hour of his new movie, Quentin Tarantino does something astonishing. Again.
No spoilers here, but Tarantino builds to one of his trademark scenes of ultraviolence — a gruesome sequence, also cartoonishly funny — for the purpose of creating an almost hurtfully bittersweet outcome.
I’ve never seen anything like that combination. But then everything in this filmmaker’s work is geared toward making us see in a different way.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is Tarantino’s love letter to the movie capital (and like his other work, a love letter to movies). Set in 1969, its various plot strands culminate in the night that actress Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult.
Tate (played by Margot Robbie) exists in “Once Upon a Time” as a sunny dream of Hollywood success, dancing at parties and shyly basking in her own onscreen image when she sneaks into a theater showing one of her films.
We spend most of our time with two fictional characters, both carefully (and at times uproariously) detailed. Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a one-time TV star whose career has declined in direct inverse proportion to his alcohol intake.
Rick’s best bud is his one-time stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff radiates California sunshine, an easygoing cat who seems cool with the fact that his career now mostly consists of acting as Rick’s chauffeur and life coach.
On the other hand, Cliff doesn’t take nonsense. This becomes clear in a fascinating sequence where he picks up a hitchhiker (crackling Margaret Qualley) and heads out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, an old TV set where Manson’s “family” has their living quarters.
At 161 minutes, the movie undoubtedly dawdles. As ever, Tarantino arranges his story around big, drawn-out set-pieces, whether it’s Rick’s struggles to remember his lines while shooting an episode of “Lancer,” or Cliff’s backstage knockdown with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).
I confess I can’t explain all of Tarantino’s noodlings, except to say he really likes shots of people driving convertibles to Neil Diamond songs, and he has a weak spot for vintage radio advertisements and 1960s Westerns. Since I also have a weak spot for those things, perhaps I’m not the best person to be objective about them.
The movie needs its length, to build the sense of creeping unease that goes with its comedy. Make no mistake, Tarantino is an experimenter, and the way “Once Upon a Time” fools around with storytelling is refreshingly different from the way most big movies plod along.
Not surprisingly, the film is crammed with dandy actors, including isolated bits for Kurt Russell, Al Pacino and Bruce Dern. As Manson freak Squeaky Fromme, Dakota Fanning generates quiet menace, and on the set of “Lancer,” Timothy Olyphant and the late Luke Perry play real-life actors.
Even in this impressive crowd, DiCaprio and Pitt own the picture. Their different styles — DiCaprio coiled, Pitt hanging loose — go directly to how they create these two bros who need each other. Neither actor has ever been better.
Tarantino fills the movie with his obsessions: movie posters, LA architecture, a clip of Robert Goulet singing “MacArthur Park.” As ever with him, it’s like having a manic collector show you around the room where he stores his valuables.
What really makes the movie click is its fairy-tale premise, which leads to Tarantino’s most moving ending. But stay for the end credits, as Rick Dalton has something to sell you, in a vintage black-and-white TV ad. Because anything goes in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (4 stars)
Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the movie capital is set in 1969, culminating in the night Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) was murdered by members of the Manson cult. But the 161-minute film has room for much more than that, especially the adventures of a washed-up TV cowboy star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt), a pair of characters who turn out to be uproarious and unexpectedly moving.
Rating: R, for violence, language
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