Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

So many modern movies come and go from our lives, like swirling, taupe dishwater down a drain.  They don’t have a single snippet of memorable dialogue, or a scene that you’ll remember more than a few days later.  A majority of new releases arrive meekly in theaters, make a pittance of money, only to vanish into a cinematic septic system without so much as a gurgling bubble.  That’s why it’s so wonderful that Quentin Tarantino arrives every few years with the movie equivalent of an ice bucket challenge.  His brainy, ballsy dialogue and infectious riffs on just about every genre in film history wash over the viewer like a cleansing rinse of frigid hosewater.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s latest pop culture drench, puts all of his strengths and weaknesses together for one frantic sprint through the sprinklers:  His 60s pastiche is brilliant, silly, brutal, and indulgent, all in one sprawling, exhausting movie experience.  As always, Tarantino pays homage to a rogues’ gallery of maverick directors, from Sergio Leone to Jean-Luc Goddard, from Akira Kurosawa to Terrance Malick.  Throughout his career, his stunning magic trick has been to blend these influences with an unfailingly geeky bravado, until each resulting movie feels like something only he could make.

As with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino takes the canvas of actual history and paints a few of his own scuzzy miscreants onto it.  Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a has-been television star who seems to be living through one perpetual hangover.  He staggers from one film set to another, burbling through banal lines and playing cheap villains who are only destined for a hero’s bullet before story’s end.  With Dalton for this journey to the barrel’s bottom is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a Marlboro Man-stunt player who serves not only as Dalton’s double, but also his handler, confidante, drinking buddy, and bodyguard.  The two men form a strange, symbiotic bromance:  Dalton wants to pull his career out of a tailspin of typecasting, while Booth only wants to enjoy the ride for a little while longer.

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) strolls and shimmies through the movie like a ray of sunshine.  Latched to the arm of Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawieirucha), a talented-but-troubled director, Robbie plays Tate as blissfully unaware of the magnetic response she engenders.  Tarantino brilliantly contrasts the grimy struggles of Dalton and Booth with the pristine gorgeousness of Tate and her clique of A-list royalty.  Of course, those who know the story know that Tate and her beautiful compatriots are doomed:  Their Hollywood Hills mansion soon falls under the twitchy gaze of Charles Manson and his troop of gibbering hippie freaks.

Most of Hollywood ambles along a meandering path of 60s nostalgia:  Tarantino serves up his usual platter of obscure movie references and classic rock deep tracks, and part of the fun for a pop culture glutton like me is chowing on every esoteric sampler as it arrives.  Tarantino apparently spent years writing this thing, and he definitely wrote the holy living hell out of it.  This entire movie is stuffed to the seams with all types of humor, several layers of drama, and, of course, occasional bursts of operatic violence.

The final act of the movie deviates from reality and indulges in a few flights of narrative fancy.  This will engage some viewers and frustrate others, but I found it to be vintage Tarantino.  He spends the first two sections of the movie guiding a slow, sizzling fuse.  Once all his plot strands pull together, well…boom goes the dynamite.  Chances are you’ll either love it or hate it, but I found it to be weird, wild, and ingenious.

Igor Stravinsky once observed that, “a good composer does not imitate; he steals.”  That quote feels apropos for Quentin Tarantino, but also a bit harsh in language.  He doesn’t steal from iconic filmmakers so much as raid from their collective pantry, like a red-eyed man with the munchies.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a movie made by a movie buff, for other movie buffs.  It lovingly captures another time and place, and features easy, unforced chemistry between its superstar leads.  For anyone who’s suffered through a summer season of flavorless fare, here is a steaming plate of comfort food that somehow tastes familiar and brand new, all at the same time.

159 minutes.  R.

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Author: Todd Wofford

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