“Once upon a time,” the prototypical start to a fairy tale. With his most recent movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” director Quentin Tarantino has created a fairy tale of sorts, full of movie magic and Hollywood glamour. It’s a period piece, set in 1969, and tangentially, it’s a film about the historic murder of actress Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult. Gratuitous violence is an auteur touch common across Tarantino’s work, which raises the question of how he’ll handle such an infamous example of real world violence.
But while Tate (Margot Robbie) is a central character of this story, the movie primarily focuses on her fictitious neighbor, washed up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s career is struggling after an unsuccessful jump from television cowboy to movie star. Accompanying Dalton is his close friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose unassuming demeanor hides some violent tendencies.
At two hours and forty minutes in length, the movie meanders at a leisurely place, not necessarily driven in any one direction by a central plot. Dalton prepares to play the role of a villainous outlaw while moping about his irrelevancy, Booth has a series of misadventures that draw him ever closer to the Manson family, and Tate goes about her life as a Hollywood starlet. Though slow and long, the movie is carried by charismatic performances from its central cast, particularly DiCaprio, who portrays Dalton both as likeably earnest yet a little bit pathetic.
“Once Upon a Time” also thrives in capturing the atmosphere of its 1960s Hollywood setting, with cars rushing down neon-lit California streets and a soundtrack thoroughly of that era. Between the Hollywood setting and an actor protagonist, “Once Upon a Time” is a movie with a thematic fixation on movies and how we watch them. There’s more than one sequence of characters sitting down to watch another film, and Dalton’s career, past and present, is also shown, shifting the film’s perspective over into entirely different movies. Whether its a television set framing a scene or repeated cuts to Dalton out of character, there’s always a reminder that what’s being shown is a work of fiction.
And that fictional awareness cleverly collides with the historical fact that backdrops the film. The audience is presumed to know who Sharon Tate is and the grim death that awaits her the night of Aug. 8, 1969. And Aug. 8 will come to pass on-screen, though how that night plays out is best left for the viewer to discover unspoiled. The film climaxes with a bit of Tarantino-brand violence, which is largely absent elsewhere in the movie, but it also manages a touch of dark humor as well.
While the movie cleverly juxtaposes fact and fiction, there’s also some concerning fumbling of theme elsewhere. One scene devotes a great deal of time painting an unflattering caricature of the late Bruce Lee, an odd choice for a movie otherwise celebrating film history. While there’s also something to be said about the film’s unheroic depiction of the Manson family, Manson himself has a small presence overall, and the film uses his obvious villainy to disparage the whole of 60s counterculture. Whether it’s Lee or the hippies, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is set up as a counterpoint. The end result is a film that seems to uncritically celebrate a sort of white male machismo. While the film makes intentional use of Booth’s characterization, at times that characterization feels thoughtless and outdated.
These stumbles notwithstanding, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is still an enjoyable film. It’s a film with a romantic appreciation for cinema, equally interesting and problematic for what it chooses to romanticize. If you can tolerate some Tarantino-brand eccentricities, it’s cinema worth appreciating in its own right.