Here is a trigger warning – this review contains possible spoilers!
Obsessive auteur Quentin Tarantino takes his longstanding cinematic love affair with Hollywood to new and exhilarating heights in “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood” (Sony/Columbia). Drawing on his own oeuvre as well as the vast entertainments from mid-20thcentury movies and television, the sprawling (nearly three hours!) epic is Tarantino’s most ambitious patchwork quilt film; alternately comforting and gripping.
Bordering on being washed-up, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) is at a career crossroads in early 1969. After his popular Western series went off the air, he’s been relegated to bad guy/heavy guest-starring roles in a variety of other people’s TV shows. As work has dried up, Cliff (Brad Pitt), his longtime stunt double, has become more of a man Friday to Rick, chauffeuring him to sets and meetings (Rick lost his license due to several DUIs), making household repairs (shirtless, I might add), “carrying his load” and such.
Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), Rick’s Cielo Drive married neighbors in Benedict Canyon, are having a somewhat better time of it. Living in a house formerly rented by musician Terry Melcher, they were followed by paparazzi wherever they went. However, the gate at the end of the driveway gave them privacy.
In February, Rick takes meeting at Musso & Frank’s with new agent Marvin (a scenery-devouring Al Pacino) who promises him big things and is desperate to book Rick into Spaghetti Westerns. In a visual review of Rick’s career accomplishments, we even see him singing Jim Lowe’s song “Green Door” on “Hullabaloo”. Creating this kind of brief nostalgic reference is one of the things at which Tarantino excels. After insecure Rick’s minor emotional meltdown after the meeting, Cliff drives him home. On the way, they encounter some Manson Family members crossing the street carrying their recent dumpster diving edibles. One of the girls, whom we later learn is named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), gets flirty with Cliff.
Cliff, by the way, doesn’t live in Benedict Canyon. He lives, with his wonderful dog Brandy, an expressive and adorable pit bull, in a trailer behind a drive-in in Van Nuys. Nevertheless, wherever Rick goes Cliff goes. One place they don’t get to, however, is the Playboy Mansion with Sharon and Roman. There, we get some background on another important player, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), courtesy of Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis).
Back on set, Rick talks stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) into hiring Cliff. This despite the fact that Randy’s wife hates Cliff because he supposedly got away with murdering his wife. Cliff’s time on set is short-lived after he challenges Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) to a fight in what is easily the funniest scene in the entire movie. Meanwhile, self-doubting Rick has an encounter with a serious young actress named Trudi (scene-stealer Julia Butters) who manages to provide Rick with the confidence he’d been lacking.
Cliff’s next Hollywood adventure occurs when he once again crosses paths with Pussycat. He offers her a ride to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a location he’s familiar with from his stunt work. Little does he realize that it’s become the Manson Family’s headquarters. This pivotal scene, where he also encounters “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning) is as chilling as it is humorous.
Another amazing scene features Sharon Tate in L.A.’s Westwood neighborhood. While there, she comes upon a movie theater showing her movie “The Wrecking Crew” in which she co-starred with Dean Martin. Tate, still a relative unknown, even a couple of years after “Valley of the Dolls”, is given free entry to the theater where she takes a seat and watches the movie without being recognized. It’s a mostly dialogue-less scene, but Robbie imbues it with such emotion that it’s a joy to watch.
Of course, anyone familiar with the fate of Tate, Sebring and two of their friends knows what happened in August of 1969. Here is where Tarantino takes complete control, rewriting history in a way that is unexpected and delightful. In doing so, he not only gives the audience the most shocking happy ending ever, he is also able to take his reputation for exploitive (if comedic) violence in an utterly unforeseen direction. The ultra-grisly finale simply has to be seen to be believed and appreciated.
At least 40 minutes too long, with the self-indulgent Western movie shoot with Rick and James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) being at the heart of the problem, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is nevertheless one of the most entertaining and satisfying summer movie experiences of the year.