It’s taken me weeks to catch up with one of the buzziest movies in theaters now, and it’s clearly been my loss. Quentin Tarantino’s black comedy, set against the backdrop of the Manson Family/Sharon Tate murder 50 years ago this week, is a chronicle of inside-Hollywood metafiction. It’s a layered love letter to the films Tarantino himself famously binged while working the register at Video Archives in Los Angeles in his ‘20s, and is thus a cinephile’s heaven: Even seeing it in a public theater on a Monday afternoon, I often felt it was produced, and projected, specifically for me. Yet its boisterous humor and self-referentiality skates over its blunt assessment of a studio system in its death spasms and a generation losing its innocence.
Leonardo DiCaprio, looking like he hasn’t had this much fun in front of a camera for years, plays Rick Dalton, a fading actor still coasting, barely, on “Bounty Law,” his hit television western from the 1950s. Navigating an unsuccessful transition to the big screen, Dalton has found few demands for his laconic, tough-guy persona in the era of “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider,” and has begun the retreat back to television, accepting one-and-done guest appearances as mustache-twirling villains. Perhaps a meeting with an unctuous executive (Al Pacino) promising untold riches in the emerging Italian market of spaghetti westerns will revive his career.
Rick’s best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is mired in his own career rut; he is, after all, chained to the successes and failures of his star employer. His canon is looser than Rick’s and, like Robert Blake, he is believed by many to have killed his wife and gotten away with it. While on a drive through Burbank during a reprieve from work, he picks up a hitchhiking teenage hippie headed for the Spahn Ranch—aka the Manson compound—which will figure into his destiny.
Like much of the director’s filmography, “Once Upon a Time” is large in scope and can be ungainly, with a sprawl to match that of L.A. itself. At 159 minutes, it’s not without its Tarantinan self-indulgences. There are protracted scenes, such as Cliff’s visit to the Ranch and his badgering attempts to speak to its blind, elderly owner and former colleague, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), that clearly mean more to the director than they will to his audience.
But more often than not, Tarantino’s trademark leisurely pacing—his propensity to let scenes play out past other filmmakers’ expiration times—works to the movie’s loosely structured favor. There is very little plot to speak of but a great deal of insightful observations, witty asides, generous dips into kidney-shaped pools of Hollywood nostalgia.
There’s Mike Moh, as a cocky Bruce Lee, losing himself in his own shtick on the studio lot, and starting on unwise conflict with Cliff. There’s Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, beaming with glee as she attends a local cinema to see herself in the bumbling comedy “The Wrecking Crew.” There’s Rick and Cliff, sitting down in front of a boxy black-and-white television to watch Rick’s cameo on “F.B.I.,” Tarantino lingering on the screen-within-a-screen for minutes on end as the boys, like Beavis and Butt-Head, offer a running commentary on the show. I wanted to be in the room with them, enjoying the pizza, the beer, the camaraderie.
As Tarantino’s most culturally submerged, movie-mad movie, “Once Upon a Time” is awash in site-specific art direction and sound design, in which no frame or patch of soundtrack goes unused. From billboards and theater marquees and the posters and one-sheets that flood interiors and exteriors alike, to the radio advertisements and vinyl selections filling characters’ ears, this film is arguably Tarantino’s densest audiovisual Easter egg hunt to date. At one point, he superimposes DiCaprio’s Rick into the Steve McQueen role in “The Great Escape,” and a sequence from one of Rick’s early films, a Nazi exploitation actioner, winks at Tarantino’s own “Inglourious Basterds.”
But whether the movie depicts Hollywood as it was, or how Tarantino wishes it was, is the delicate dance at the heart of “Once Upon a Time.” The movie’s title is a callback to spaghetti-western maestro Sergio Leone’s mythic epics like “Once Upon a Time in the West,” but it also suggests a fairytale, a genre reinforced by its surreal, id-unleashing climax, with its alteration of history—a bonkers, and wholly welcome, example of Tarantino once again flouting the rules.
But the brilliance of this film is that just when we’ve started to acclimate to its withering satire, it gets real on us. In the finest sequence in “Once Upon a Time,” Rick, waiting for his big moment as the black hat-wearing bad guy on a western TV pilot, engages in conversation with Trudi Fraser, a child Method actor played with hilarious eloquence by Julia Butters.
Given that most movie productions consist of far more waiting than shooting, Rick has brought a book along, an escapist cowboy novel. Trudi inquires about the plot, and as Rick reveals its story about an aging broncobuster relegated to the sidelines, the resonance to his own situation hits him like a wrecking ball. The character is “not the best anymore,” he explains. “He’s coming to terms with what it means to be slightly”—DiCaprio’s voice breaks here, adding a beat the size of Grand Canyon, and he begins to well up—“slightly more useless each day.”
As Trudi comforts him, one actor to another, we latch on to part of what has made Tarantino such a gifted filmmaker for nearly 30 years. Like Rick’s sudden deep dive into a dime-store paperback, he finds art in trash.