Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time' is a nostalgic love letter to Hollywood

Brad Keefe
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”

I first saw “Reservoir Dogs” on a rental VHS in a high school friend’s living room with a group of like-minded movie buddies. We were immediately hooked.

I first saw “Pulp Fiction” at the Drexel Theatre on October 14, 1994 (opening day, obviously). I was blown away. To this day, I still haven’t forgiven the Academy for giving the Best Picture Oscar to “Forrest Gump” the following year.

Quentin Tarantino was a formative influence in my young film life and is probably as responsible as anyone for my career as a movie critic.

In the quarter-century he’s been a Hollywood fixture, my tastes have grown far more eclectic, but his movies will always be an event.

There’s a reason that “Tarantino-esque” is an understood adjective. His style — rapid-fire dialogue, using violence as punctuation, constant homage to the films he loves — is one that’s so unmistakable, we can tell when anyone else tries to imitate it.

Tarantino’s ninth film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” is both a maturation and display of the director’s self-indulgence (sometimes problematic, sometimes a great thing).

Even after two viewings, I’m not quite sure where to rank it among his catalog, but it is unmistakably Tarantino near his best and, thus, must-see cinema.

“Once Upon a Time” is set in 1969, an era marked by the rise in hippie culture and the waning of the Hollywood old guard.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the embodiment of the latter, an actor whose career has derailed since his days starring in a popular weekly TV western. His roles have gone from the heroic lead to the recognizable bad guy who gets his ass kicked by the hero at the end of the film.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stunt double, although Rick’s career dip has made Cliff more of a driver/personal assistant who takes care of odd jobs around Rick’s home in the Hollywood Hills.

Meanwhile, Rick’s new next door neighbors are on the other side of the Hollywood career trajectory: actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, “Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

“Once Upon a Time” takes place over the course of two normal days in the life of its characters before a third act takes us to an infamous date: August 8, 1969.

Tarantino uses the backdrop of the Manson Family murders as a ticking time bomb that layers tension and foreshadowing into the loose, hangout vibe of the events early in the film.

The fact that “Once Upon a Time” isn’t exactly what you’d expect is a testament to Tarantino’s ability to still shock and surprise audiences, even as he’s up to his familiar tricks.

If the plot takes its time coming together — Tarantino compared it to “Pulp Fiction” in terms of intersecting storylines — there are too many great scenes and moments to leave much of this on the cutting room floor.

He’s also re-teaming with two of the biggest stars he’s worked with in DiCaprio and Pitt. The director hyped this as the biggest onscreen pairing since Paul Newman and Robert Redford (“Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid). It’s hard to argue with that.

DiCaprio is brilliantly nuanced in his performance, Rick’s tough-guy persona giving way to deep insecurity.

In one memorable scene, Rick is on the set chatting with a precocious child actor (a scene-stealing Julia Butters) about a novel he’s reading when he breaks down talking about the lead character going through the feeling of “being a little bit more useless every day.”

Pitt is also at the top of his game, particularly in a drawn-out encounter with the Manson clan at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a former shooting locale in the desert.

Robbie has limited screen time, but she’s a sunny counterpoint throughout, portraying Tate as warm and alive rather than casting her as a third-act victim. She’s simply brilliant in an extended scene involving Tate watching her own movie with a matinee audience.

Of course, Tarantino can be one of the most self-indulgent directors, and this is another movie he’s making for himself first and foremost, sometimes to a fault. (All the fetish-y shots of feet are making me uncomfortable, Quentin.)

I’m still processing the movie as a whole (it clocks in at more than two-and-a-half hours), but this is one of Tarantino’s most personal pictures, as well as a collection of some of his greatest moments as a filmmaker.

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4 stars out of 5

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”