[Spoilers throughout.] I’m a late convert to Quentin Tarantino. I didn’t much care for his much-creamed-over early films, which seemed to just dick around sanguinarily. But he grew chops. Whatever else was wrong with it, Inglourious Basterds was beautifully put together, and Django Unchained was a riff on classic forms that was actually as well-made as the classics themselves.
His plots are ridiculous, true, and though he can write (and overwrite) dialogue he can’t draw a character to save his life (though he certainly found actors who could make it look as if he had). And there was the feet thing. But he’s mastered his form, and once artists do that I tend to keep watching them to see if they might make something better than well-made.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is as well-made as anything Tarantino has ever done, and I certainly wasn’t bored, but for the first time in a while what’s dumb about his movie somewhat spoiled what’s fun about it for me.
The set-up: A couple of pals — with strong hints of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham and a little hint of Clint Eastwood — knock around late-60s Hollywood. The actor, Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio), once a Western series lead, is now just getting villain parts and contemplating spaghetti westerns; the stuntman, Cliff (Brad Pitt), is doing not much stunting, and mostly gopher-ing for Rick.
Cliff can roll with the punches (literally); he’s happy living in his trailer, drinking beer and talking to his pitbull, or hanging out with Rick; career, in the general and the particular, means less than nothing to him. But Rick is in agony and drinking hard; for him the collapse of his career is an existential crisis; his Hollywood Hills house is less a home than a status marker he’s desperate to hang onto, and when Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate move in next door he can’t even see the opportunity this presents — it just escalates his fear that “new Hollywood” is cruising past him.
Tarantino’s characterizations are typically flimsy (what, for example, do Rick and Cliff see in one another? Other writers have reconciled more discordant odd couples). His actors still put it over. DiCaprio is involuted and almost socially retarded, his conversation full of little hesitant blips of either wetbrain or personality disintegration. Pitt, on the other hand, registers bone-deep comfort with the world; you can see him sizing up every situation and walking straight into what he knows is right. Like he says when this gets him fired from a good gig for beating up Bruce Lee (!): Fair enough.
When it comes time to create more conflict, we get into bigger game and that’s where things get shaky. Cliff stumbles upon the Manson family up at the Spahn Ranch; he senses trouble but the mind-games of the Mansons (particularly Squeaky Fromme, played with a hard, cold center by Dakota Fanning) are beyond him; his simple apparatus isn’t up to so exotic a problem. Meanwhile, we get to know the family’s eventual target, Sharon Tate — not very much; just enough to know that she’s beautiful and agreeable and good at acting, and has pretty feet.
Tarantino’s big idea (I did say spoilers) is to redirect the Tex Watson murder party Manson sent to kill pigs on August 8, 1969 from Tate’s house to Rick’s, so instead of the slaughter that happened in real life we get a fun Tarantino movie slaughter — good guys imaginatively smashing bad guys, and taking a little damage themselves just to make it look good.
I sort of enjoyed watching how it played out — how will our inebriated heroes deal with the Manson Family? But once the big fight was over, if I thought about it for two seconds it just seemed weird. I can understand why killing Hitler in Basterds was a satisfying idea; it’s Hitler, after all, and his death was the great wish-fulfillment of the World War II movies to which Tarantino was paying tribute. It was still odd, in fact childish, but the picture went on with other traditional dramatic business. The Manson alt-history, however, is OUATIH’s climax, and it feels like one of those dumb “imaginary stories” in old DC comics. And why Manson? Who really cares?
After probably too much time thinking about it I think I figured it out. The movie is a love poem to 1969 Hollywood. We follow Cliff driving around in his beat-up convertible for long stretches mainly so we can take long looks at it. Tarantino’s hard-on for that time and place is obvious — you can see it in the obsessive period work, from the Carnation Milk trucks on the street to the way Cliff tips a parking valet with change. This Hollywood is rich and glamorous, but also a little sweaty, less completely air-conditioned and smoothed-out than it later became; sea air and eucalyptus mingle with cigarette smoke and car exhaust, and the hills are still dark and unguarded.
You can see the retro appeal for Tarantino, who’s so hooked on the era he actually made an après la lettre AIP movie . It’s just far enough back to be mysterious and arcane, but not so far back that he can’t imagine himself clad in desert boots and Aviators, scoping the chicks on the Strip, instead of having to put up with endless insults about the violence and misogyny of his movies and of his former creative partners. Hollywood ‘69 is sort of an Eden where nothing can be too terribly wrong — even the Playboy Mansion is a glorious place where everyone swings and no one visibly suffers or sexually harasses.
The Mansonites are the snakes in the garden. Tarantino seems to think old Hollywood — or rather the old “new Hollywood” of the era — got ruined by Manson, and in his fantasy his heroes not only save Tate and her friends and his Eden from the hippies; Tate also becomes friends with Rick — intuitively responding to the rescue she doesn’t realize happened (Tate even hugs Rick, much as Regan hugged the Catholic priest at the end of The Exorcist). It’s even implied that they’ll go on to work together, or at least be part of the same scene, linking the hipster cred of Polanski with Rick-Burt’s cool-daddy Hollywood. Hell, maybe Tate will even go for Rick; hadn’t we heard earlier that she likes short, talented men?
Maybe I’ve overthought it, but I can’t come up with any interpretation that makes it less infantile. Not boring, though! Special kudos to Nicholas Hammond’s hammy Sam Wanamaker, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen getting high, and Margaret Qualley as a cookie full of arsenic.