Find someone who looks at you the way Hollywood looks at Hollywood.
Tinseltown loves nothing more than making movies about itself and heralding the magic it alone creates. “Love letters to Hollywood,” the expression goes. In recent years we’ve been handed “Hail, Caesar!” from the Coen brothers and the almost-Best Picture-winning “La La Land.” To add to that list, you have to have a damn good reason.
“I am Quentin Tarantino” is not a good enough reason.
The cult-favorite director’s new movie is called “Once Upon a Time In … Hollywood,” a title that affectionately nods to the Spaghetti Westerns of directors such as Sergio Leone that play a big part in the plot. Like those Italian takes on cowboys and tumbleweeds, Tarantino’s film is slow and sprawling. His sumptuous shots of 1969 Hollywood Boulevard make Los Angeles look like a place I’d actually want to visit. A feat of filmmaking.
But the movie is oddly wishy-washy for the forceful director of “Kill Bill” and “Pulp Fiction.” I think what Tarantino is going for is brazenly manipulating historical events to suit his style, and turning a well-worn genre on its head. But in so doing he’s made an everything bagel of a movie: Part satire, part bear hug, part fictional bromance. It’s also about the Manson family murders.
Like the grimy grandeur of its shots, the actors of “Once” are uniformly excellent. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a fading star of a canceled 1950s Western TV show called “Bounty Law.” Now he’s resigned to guest spots as TV villains and craves a real film career. Perhaps his new next-door neighbor, hot-shot director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) can help!
Not yet a pariah, the “Rosemary’s Baby” helmer has just moved in with young wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and Dalton and his best pal, stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), have taken notice.
From there, the plot becomes threefold: Rick attempts to resuscitate his career, the badass Cliff picks up a fictitious, hitchhiking Manson family girl (Lena Dunham plays another) and visits their creeptacular Spahn Hollywood Ranch, and Tate wanders around wide-eyed in awe of her fledgling movie stardom. Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning are also in this.
Samuel L. Jackson is mysteriously absent in Tarantinos latest
Samuel L. Jackson is everywhere in the Marvel-verse this year…
There are special moments scattered throughout, most of which belong to the sensational Pitt, who’s the only character here that has a shot at a “Pulp Fiction”-style fan base. Him feeding his pit bull is more fun than any of Tarantino’s old movie re-creations, as is a scene when he kicks Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh) ass.
DiCaprio has one of the most moving scenes, when he tears up on set after a precocious 8-year-old actress tells him his acting was the best she’s ever seen. Al Pacino is also a hoot as an obnoxious talent agent.
It’s a shame all that goodness is undone by the film’s gonzo ending, an ultra-violent coup de theater that makes you question why you’ve sat there for nearly three hours putting together a detailed jigsaw puzzle, only to have a demon child stomp on it. Plenty of fans at my screening whooped it up. It’s quintessential Tarantino after all.
But “Once” could’ve been so much … more.
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