"To my wife and all my sweethearts. May they never meet."
For his ninth and—if the writer/director himself is to be believed—penultimate film, Quentin Tarantino brings us "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood." The film is not so much a spiritual successor to Sergio Leone's sprawling, epic films that began with the same five words, but rather a tribute to the films from the era in which it's set, the late 60s. Specifically, the summer of 1969 when Hollywood "lost its innocence" thanks to a series of brutal murders, including star on the riseSharon Tate.
Tarantino's vision of Hollywood in 1969 is seen through the eyes of three characters, two of his own creation—Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth—with the third being the late Ms. Tate, played here by the equally luminescentMargot Robbie. Dalton is a former TV western gunslinger whose fading career now finds him playing the heel to newer stars of the day. Booth is his former stunt double who can't secure much work outside of being Rick's chauffeur, thanks to his reputation for causing trouble and that pesky rumor that he murdered his wife and got away with it.
The nearly three hour film unfolds over the course of three days: Saturday February 8, Sunday February 9, and Friday August 8. The first day consists mostly as set-up, with Dalton meeting schmoozy agent Marvin Schwarz (a hilariously committed Al Pacino), who offers him the chance to go to Rome and shoot spaghetti westerns, an offer Dalton takes as an insult. Tarantino also delivers some clever exposition—via Damian Lewis playing Steve McQueen— about Tate and her new husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).
The bulk of the film is spent on the second day, as Dalton goes to the set of the new series "Lancer" to play the villain to series star Jim Stacy (Timothy Olyphant). Sharon heads to L.A. to catch a screening of the Matt Helm flick "The Wrecking Crew" in which she co-stars. Tarantino gives us a lovely scene where Robbie as Tate watches the real Tate on screen, in the theater, drinking in the audience's uproarious reaction to her performance with total anonymity.
Booth gets the juiciest Sunday of the bunch when he gives a hitchhiking hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) a lift back to Spahn Ranch where she and a bunch of folks live with a charismatic leader namedCharles Manson(Damon Herriman)—seen only once, and never in full. The scene at Spahn Ranch is among the best in Tarantino's career, an absolute master class in ratcheting tension and using an audience's built in expectations to his advantage.
That brings us to the problematic third act of the film, which I daren't spoil, even this long after the release. There's a sense running throughout the film's third act that Tarantino hasn't delivered one of his signature ultra-violent set-pieces yet, and for a moment, I thought he might actually have put that to the side for once. Nevertheless, the audience gets its signature Tarantino blood bath and it kinda derails the film's agenda to honor the end of the golden age of Hollywood.
The third act isn't a dealbreaker, however, as Tarantino masterfully sticks the landing and delivers a final moment that redeems the previous twenty or so. He also leads into this scene with a beautiful montage set to the Rolling Stones tune "Out of Time" that would feel too on the nose in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Tarantino manages to make the moment both bittersweet without making it a harbinger of the doom that's on the horizon.
This may not be "career best work" from Brad Pitt, who has been better elsewhere, but he's never been more at home in a character than he is here. Cliff Booth feels lived in and fleshed out and fully formed in a way that only a seasoned veteran could deliver at the point in his career in which Pitt currently finds himself. He delivers a performance charged with authenticity, likely culled from a life spent hanging around set with guys like Cliff Booth. Combine that with his ease on camera, his expert knowledge of his best angles, and some killer line deliveries, and you can understand why people are so high on his performance. It's like a master's thesis, almost, showing us all the stuff he's learned over the years.
DiCaprio is one of those actors who likes for the audience to see how hard he's working. His work as an actor has never been effortless. He carries a chip on his shoulder and it's truly his achilles heel as an actor. However, here he manages to be in the moment as his character and leave the work offscreen, where it belongs. The scenes where he's shooting his guest spot on "Lancer" are among the best in the film, and feature a DiCaprio who is fully dialed in. Actors at that time were workhorses and didn't have time to be precious about the material. They just showed up, learned their lines, and hoped that they didn't mess up a take. DiCaprio nails this element of Dalton as a character and it's one of the few times I've seen him truly disappear into a role.
As for Margot Robbie, there's not a fault to be found in her performance. She manages to capture the light and life of Sharon Tate so perfectly, while also making her a three-dimensional person. The script does the character a bit of a disservice by almost taking a hands-off approach. Tarantino seems to want to tread lightly where Ms. Tate's character is concerned, and it's often to the detriment of her character. The ultimate triumph, I suppose, is that one leaves the theater wanting to have seen more of her, which is always the best feeling to have about any character in a film.
Having seen "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" twice in fairly rapid succession, I have to say that it comfortably resides on the upper end of Tarantino's catalog. It's certainly his best film this decade and will likely delight fans of his "Inglourious Basterds" for the way it's manages to weave fact with fiction the way only he can. My only wish for this film is that Tarantino weren't so blunt at times. It's got to be a burden trying to deliver on expectations an audience is guaranteed to have going into his films. But the way Tarantino delights in exploiting and subverting those expectations leaves one wondering why he chose the third act he did.
Still, I'll take four-fifths of a great movie over a completely satisfactory effort any day of the week. I think we're all still holding out for another Tarantino flick that's a full five fifths of a great movie. If he's to be taken at his word, there's only one more shot at that glory.