Movie Review: “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”

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It’s indulgent.

But we knew that. It’s Tarantino. We come for the indulgence.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” might be his most self-aware picture yet, a time-burning wallow in 1960s pop culture, fashions and the “magic of the movies.”

It’s also misshapen and meandering, a self-indulgent Inglourious Basterdization of the infamous Manson Family murders. It rarely settles into a style or a tone that works.

And someday, the ghost of Bruce Lee is going to rise up and kick Quentin Tarantino’s ass from here to Hialeah.

What he’s going for here is a drunken, violent mytho-poetic celebration of “The Hollywood Version” of the era and its history, which has informed his films since the beginning. For those of us who show up for “the cool parts,” he provides them, mostly in the form of two old-fashioned, old school movie stars — Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.

And I went along with this cable mini-series-length saunter through movies and classic bad TV, the long appreciations of the theme to TV’s “Mannix,” Pitt’s drawn out and tame “stunt-driving” through recreations of 1969 LA traffic, the craft of TV acting and the best damned Sam Wannamaker impersonation (Nicholas Hammond from “The Sound of Music”) the movies will ever see.

Tarantino always rewards movie-buffs and junk culture history fans, and he lovingly recreates Cineramadome Era LA, its vintage cars and vintage cinemas, backlots and over-filmed sets and locations from the bitter end of the Golden Age of TV Westerns.

He comically slanders Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) composes a leering love poem to the late Sharon Tate, keeping Margot Robbie’s legs and derriere in the frame (and her dirty feet, the perv) for a lot of scenes which paint her as the very essence of a sweet starlet who might not have ever made it, but would probably have never made an enemy had the Manson cult not slaughtered her, her friends and her unborn child.

But at some point, it’s got to hit you. This movie is a bit of a mess. It certainly did me, and that was a ways before its atonal goof of a third act.

DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, onetime star of TV’s “Bounty Killer,” now reduced to drinking and taking an endless succession of episodic work on other people’s TV shows. A meeting with a producer/talent scout for Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” (Al Pacino) just confirms to Rick, stammering more and losing confidence by the day, that “I’m a has-been, ol’buddy…Washed up.”

“Ol’buddy” here is Cliff Booth (Pitt), a grizzled stunt double who acts as driver, handyman and boon companion to Rick, who has too many DUIs to drive his own Caddy to the set. Cliff is Old Hollywood at its rough and ready best — nimble, skilled, confident, a man with a dark past and a reputation he can’t shake. Ask his old stunt coordinator boss (Kurt Russell) and the boss’s wife (stunt woman and “Deathproof” star Zoe Bell) about that.

Cliff waits on Rick to score him work, bucking up his struggles with self-confidence, his good moments and stumbles on the set of the pilot to a new Western, “Lancer.” Timothy Olyphant and the late Luke Perry play the show’s stars, Hammond’s Wannamaker is the actor-turned-director (and great Shakepearean) who wants to bring out Rick’s very best. He’s not a TV cowboy, Wannamaker assures him. “You’re better than that.

Flitting around the periphery of this post Summer of Love LA movie scene are the stoner/stone-killer butterflies of Charles Manson’s cult — underclad, undergroomed and uninhibited young women — mostly — hitchhiking, hooking, with one waif in particular (Margaret Qualley) getting Cliff’s attention.

Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, have moved in next door to Rick in the tony Hollywood Hills, and tool around town in Polanski’s 1950s MG-TF. Cliff drives the wheels off a battered VW Karmann Ghia on his way to and from his ruined travel trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In, an oil well in his “yard,” an adorable pit-bull his only company.

We’re shown the Spahn Movie Ranch, a favorite location for Westerns, where the Manson Family (Dakota Fanning plays Squeaky Fromme, Bruce Dern is old man Spahn) have set up shop. The film’s few moments of suspense come from the authentic dread of remembering even snippets of this piece of history. There were bodies buried there that no one ever found.

Flashbacks give us Cliff’s troubled “history,” a black and white on-set interview with Rick and Cliff doing “Bounty Killer” “eight years” earlier opens the film. And every so often, an ill-conceived voice-over narration (Kurt Russell, again) pipes up to set the scene, or jump us forward in time to the third act.

The first act is filled with long driving sequences that don’t advance the plot, lingering shots of the items in the kitchen pantry, the comfort foods and products and images of Young Quentin Tarantino — who needs a more ruthless editor.

Fake Sharon Tate sits in a cinema to watch her performance in the godawful Dean Martin Bond spoof, “The Wrecking Crew.” And even though we’ve seen DiCaprio injected into a scene from “The Great Escape” in place of Steve McQueen (impersonated by Damien Lewis in an early Playboy Mansion party scene), Robbie’s Tate watches the REAL Sharon Tate in these clips, showing little of the promise Tarantino seems to suggest she had.

For all the detail, this is no more historical than a Marvel movie.

What we can relish here is a relaxed, offhand star turn by DiCaprio, freed from the burden of never winning an Oscar and letting us see a 40something, sweaty “has-been” who goes to pieces when he blows his lines, or is complimented in a whisper by a screen-veteran child star (Julia Butters), wise beyond her eight years.

“That was the best acting I have ever seen!”

Pitt doesn’t need a shirtless moment to summon up a career of easygoing cool leading men, but as he strips it off for a flashback, we can only hope Cliff’s swagger will be enough to get him through the fairytale alive.

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As pleasant as their every scene — together or apart — is, the movie is formless, even for a Tarantino picture. The narrative advances like a Netflix series in mid-binge — lurching, stumbling, dragging on and on.

The trailer for “Once Upon a Time…” is far more coherent.

Tarantino may call “Easy Rider,” “The Wrecking Crew” and “Arizona Raiders” his movie inspirations for “Once Upon a Time…” I’d say he was much more into the mass production Westerns and detective shows of the day, the leaden and ironically stilted “F.B.I.”

Tarantino has been unusually thin-skinned about this (mostly over-praised) “ninth film by Quentin Tarantino.” He’s making noises about this, or maybe the next picture, being his last.

Beware actors or filmmakers who threaten “This could be my last movie” before their next one comes out. They’re just inoculating themselves against serious criticism.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” isn’t his masterpiece any more than it’s his curtain call.

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(Ten Things I Hated about “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”)

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant and Kurt Russell

Credits: Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. A Sony release.

Running time: 2:41

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6 Responses to Movie Review: “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”

  1. But that guy looked amazingly like Steve McQueen.

  2. Keith says:

    “And someday, the ghost of Bruce Lee is going to rise up and kick Quentin Tarantino’s ass from here to Hialeah”. CRAP! Why didn’t I think of that line?

  3. I couldn’t agree more.

  4. Mike says:

    Get over yourselves, it’s a movie. You don’t like it, move on. So many wasted words.

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