All directors become who they are because they love movies; though it’s hard, after watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, to think of one who loves them more outrageously and obsessively than Quentin Tarantino. (Except maybe Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Inherent Vice would make for an excellent and extremely time-consuming double feature).
The 56-year-old’s ninth — and so he promises, penultimate — film feels like the sprawling confluence of every last thread in his creative DNA: lock-jawed Westerns, splattery exploitation, sex, sideburns, Nazis, nihilists, femmes who may or may not be fatales. It’s shaggy and self-indulgent and almost scandalously long; and in nearly every moment, pretty glorious.
Once also has the good luck of being anchored by what might be two of the last true movie stars: Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a boozy, anxious actor staring down the bell curve of a never-quite-stellar career, and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, his taciturn stuntman turned trusty sidekick and consigliere.
Together, they spend a lot of time cruising the canyons and boulevards of circa-1969 Los Angeles, chain-smoking on dusty backlots, and drinking beers in Dalton’s modest ranch house on Cielo Drive — a location that just happens to put him right next door to then-ascendent Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski and his starlet wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Any viewer with a pop-culture memory or a ragged paperback of Helter Skelter will clock this address right away as the primary site of the Manson Family murders, the notoriously brutal spree that essentially ended the idea (if not ideals) of a flower-powered ’60s counterculture. And Tarantino will get there, eventually.
But first, he takes some 140 fantastically rambling minutes to wend his way into the dark-heart center of this business we call show — one so littered with bravura set pieces and stars that even the smallest cameos bring the thrill of instantly familiar faces: deal-making macher (Al Pacino), ornery stuntman (Kurt Russell), fey director (Nicholas Hammond), squinty TV cowboy (Luke Perry), caftaned Manson girl (Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham). Though lesser-known names, including Margaret Qualley as a hot-pantsed teenage libertine and Julia Butters as a tiny, intensely precocious child actress, carve out their own unforgettable moments too.
Damien Lewis and Mike Moh step in, respectively, to portray Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee in brief scenes (the latter especially is a brilliant piece of standalone physical comedy), and Los Angeles — from the peak poolside hedonism of the Playboy Mansion to the tumbleweed abandon of Spahn Movie Ranch — plays itself to the sun-bleached hilt. Costume designer Arianne Phillips (Nocturnal Animals, Walk the Line) lavishes care on every last go-go boot and gold-nugget pinkie ring, and Barbara Ling’s impeccable production design seems to live entirely outside the pesky confines of studio budget lines.
DiCaprio and Pitt are probably as good as they’ve ever been in anything: one superbly channeling the outsize ego and fragility of an actor in early-midlife spiral, the other a sort of beach-boy Lebowski with a singular gift for sudden violence. Robbie looks great as Tate, but she remains mostly a sweet-tempered cypher, all beatific smiles and swinging blond hair. The only thing we learn, really, is that she wanted to be loved and recognized like anyone else, and that she really liked Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Some viewers might start to wonder somewhere around the two-and-a-half-hour mark if Tarantino actually has a plan to bring this all together, or merely wants to keep unspooling his celluloid valentine until the reels run out. There’s a wild twist coming, one you can either choose to go with or not; it feels a lot better to let it in. No doubt there will be uncountable baby Tarantinos watching Once Upon a Time in dark theaters and dreaming their own future Hollywood dreams; until then, he’s still one of the most original, confounding, and purely enjoyable auteurs we’ve got. A–