Quentin Tarantino is neither hippie nor conservative boomer, he’s a man caught between two generations, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the filmmaker’s attempt to make sense of it all, the passing of time, the changing of the guard that comes for us all. A deep-dive into one aging actor’s career and his stuntman friend’s lack of one, the quasi-fairy tale is a hang-out movie without much hangin’ out, less you count driving alone among the hills and valleys of L.A. to be such a thing. That happens quite often, characters alone, left standing in the breeze or sitting at home. Intriguingly, Hollywood is less interested in operatic dialogue and energetic flourishes than it is watching these characters wade through life over the course of three days. That third day is a fateful night in August 1969 when Sharon Tate and friends were killed in cold blood by Charlie Manson’s family of homeless, psychotic ne’er-do-wells.
As aging actor Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio continues to prove he’s got comic mettle as deft as his dramatic chops, and Brad Pitt is pure movie star cool and calm as stuntman Cliff Booth. The former is a raging ball of insecurity, stuttering and stupidly drunk half the time, clearly a man past his prime and deathly afraid of what comes after. He fears being replaced by the New Hollywood men of fringe jackets and mops of hair, otherwise known as “hippies,” a term often used as pejorative by Rick and others. The latter is a man seemingly at ease with what life’s thrown at him, lack of opportunity and trailer park digs included. Hollywood is a sweet film because Rick and Cliff are a sweet couple of friends, looking out for one another through thick and thin. They’re each other’s only friends, save Cliff’s pitbull pupper Brandi, well-deserving of this year’s Palme Dog. But Rick and Cliff are also problematic men, one a narcissist prone to outbursts and “beaner” slurs and the other possibly responsible for his wife’s murder. This is intentional. These are not enlightened men, they’re not meant to be fully formed heroes of noble intentions and perfectly good nature. They’re our parents, deeply flawed human beings whom we wish could come save the day when the future threatens the current, when the good ol’ days of now are in danger of waning forever. The funny thing about change, it’s something we desperately want right up until the moment we have it, and then nostalgia kicks our ass seven ways to Sunday and we’re left begging for what was and will never be again. It’s tempting to think of a moment in time and only remember the good, the beautiful, the peaceful, and to relive it or wish it would never end. Hollywood is Tarantino’s wish fulfillment, an alternate rendering of the late sixties, of that singular moment in time when the Golden Age of everything came to a crashing end on one hot summer night on Cielo Drive.
There are many mini-movies within the movie, from a poignant scene between Rick and a young co-star, wise beyond her years and a signal of the whip-smarter generation to come, to Cliff’s uneasy visit to Spahn Ranch, a dusty land on the outskirts of L.A. owned by an old friend of Cliff’s and currently inhabited by Charlie Manson’s grimy, bare-footed followers. Spahn Ranch is a particular delight for those who enjoy watching Pitt face any conflict with a mean punch and a smile on his face, not to mention an indelible cameo by Bruce Dern as the crotchety owner. With little connective tissue and plenty of driving to late 60’s radio, songs of the era cranked just low enough to fail at washing over us, there’s a haphazard, low-energy pulse at the heart of the film. It’s not so much an issue of pacing, as the film doesn’t feel close to three hours. It’s a problem inherent to crafting a hang-out film where characters go it alone for long stretches, not engaging with much in the way of melodrama or plot (all intentional, of course) and even seldom delivering juicy dialogue. Tarantino’s films are always quite funny, and Hollywood doesn’t disappoint. Watching Rick lose his shit or Cliff beat up selfish hippies is a hoot. And then Quentin circles back to someone driving or to Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie is luminous as the late actress, and one scene of hers in a movie theater is somewhat heartbreaking, but her character is a ghost, nearly a cipher. If you find Hollywood to be haunting, then you might vibe with such a concept, as if the lack of character nuance for her were a feature, not a bug. It might be a feature, all intentional for the sake of preserving some collective memory of her as a saint of the church of cinema. That doesn’t mean I have to like it as a directorial choice. Ditto Tarantino’s newfound proclivity for narration, clearly intended to elicit feelings of literary prose. For the most part, said narration is unnecessary and only serves to distract from the film’s occasional pathos.
Much of the film’s subtext is purely symbolic, with the Manson family utilized as a great arbiter of change. They precipitated the day the music died in Southern California, and for the world the Peace, Love, & Harmony way of life. Change is always scary and we needn’t be afraid of it. That’s how Cliff Booth feels anyway, and he and his pet friend show us what it means to stare down change, death, come what may and come away unscathed, maybe just a limp or two. Tarantino has made a habit of righting the wrongs of American history, be it Hitler’s escape or white slave-owners’ rape and torture. He’s never weaponized cinema in this way before, where the movie itself is an act of vengeance aimed squarely at the tides of change that scare us all.