Quentin Tarantino’s passion for old Hollywood finds an interesting outlet of expression in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” a movie that combines nostalgia, quirkiness and showy star performances while again weaving together fictional characters with actual ones.
For those well-versed in the writer-director’s work, it’s a credible and intriguing addition to his filmography. Yet at 2 hours and 41 minutes, it also feels too leisurely in connecting its threads, especially compared to the crispness of something like the World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds.”
Tarantino has taken the step of imploring journalists to reveal little about the movie, which is both understandable and – in terms of characterizing the project for anyone waffling about seeing it – less than helpful.
Then again, the extent to which “Once Upon a Time” works likely depends on one’s appreciation of the period and level of enthusiasm regarding the prospect of another Tarantino film, sight unseen. The easiest form of recommendation thus becomes comparing this to the director’s previous efforts – a litmus test that finds his latest film less fresh, surprising and consistently tension-filled than his very best.
What little can be said about the plot hinges on the relationship between two characters played by Tarantino alumni Leonardo DiCaprio (“Django Unchained”) and Brad Pitt (the aforementioned “Basterds”), here cast as an amusingly insecure actor, Rick Dalton, and his taciturn stuntman/driver, Cliff Booth.
Their adventures in Hollywood in 1969 – as Rick takes guest roles, fearing he’s becoming a has-been – bring them into contact with plenty of real-life figures, among them (and this doesn’t give away anything that isn’t in the ads) a pre-“Enter the Dragon” Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).
A parallel arc, meanwhile, involves Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the glamorous actress whose name will forever evoke memories of the Manson Family’s murder spree.
The marquee players obviously drive the narrative, but “Once Upon a Time” generally feels like less than the sum of its parts – a movie most enjoyable in its smaller moments, from meticulous, spot-on versions of ‘60s TV shows (Rick starred in a mythical western called “Bounty Law”) to the deft, breezy way the story incorporates L.A. landmarks and songs from the era.
Tarantino is so enamored with his gift for writing dialogue as to let scenes go on, offering a terrific showcase for his leads, here flanked by a gaudy assortment of cameos. DiCaprio’s rage-filled expressions of self-doubt alone should be mandatory viewing in acting classes.
Critically speaking, “Once Upon a Time” (billed as Tarantino’s ninth movie, although that math is a little fuzzy) deals from a stacked deck, delivering a love letter to fellow cinephiles, augmented by the director’s customarily oddball flourishes and obscure references. On the latter score, being sentient in 1969 isn’t mandatory, but having some familiarity with cultural artifacts of the time, like Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies, surely helps in fully appreciating the gags.
Tarantino’s output is over the last quarter-century has made his movies feel like an occasion. At the same time, the curvy, winding roads of the Hollywood Hills that the characters navigate provide a reasonably good metaphor for the film itself.
Those routes tend to be scenic, and they’ll get you where you’re going eventually. They’re just not always the most efficient route from here to there.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” opens July 26 in the US. It’s rated R.