Quentin Tarantino wants to retire. For better or worse, the ‘90s wunderkind has been adamant about nailing shut his career at 10 films to preserve a polished legacy. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” his ninth and ostensibly penultimate film, directly reckons with that fear of overstaying one’s welcome in the spotlight, diving into the existential terror that comes with a bruised ego. As always with Tarantino, it’s another ripping yarn, another can of worms, another hangout session with magnetic but slippery rogues. But there’s a newfound ruefulness that makes it unlike anything he’s done before.
It’d be all too easy for the writer-director to load a showbiz movie with enough references to fill every bar trivia game in the country. And in “Once Upon a Time,” he indeed luxuriates in resurrecting 1969 Los Angeles in his image, spending plenty of time with characters listening to radio ads while speeding through spotlights in vintage cars — but the ubiquity of pop culture has purpose. Here, the airwaves are the sun that beats down on everyone, old and young, reflecting a world that won’t stop spinning.
Feeling left behind are two men: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, exceptional). Once a studio golden boy, Dalton is lamenting having been relegated to the villain of the week on television serials. The straight-talking Booth is Dalton’s stunt double turned cheerleading assistant. The two seem to be each other’s only friend in the world, though Dalton’s precarious finances threaten to end their chummy, transactional relationship. The cherry on top of their midlife crises is Dalton’s new next-door neighbors: Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), the hottest director in town, and his wife, the actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), both riding the wave of their rising stars. What’s more, the couple has just had an ominous drop-in by a man named Charles Manson (Damon Herriman).
Most of the story is organized as a day-in-the-life glimpse at the trio of Dalton, Booth and Tate, each tunneling into a different side of Tinseltown, expanding beyond the Beverly Hills cul-de-sac they call home and collecting other colorful characters along the way.
Dalton’s insecurity is his greatest asset as a screen actor, driving him to bombastic but effective mustache-twirling. But it’s also hindering his subsistence, as he rejects the beckoning call of lowbrow Italian spaghetti Westerns he considers beneath him. The boyish DiCaprio is hysterical playing up the diva’s despair. Dalton finds small victories playing the goon who gets shot by the hot new leading man of the hour. There’s certainly honor in the work, but it’s clear Dalton’s chasing a past high of celebrity status that the more workaday labor of television can’t sustain.
Like Dalton, Booth has also lost a career to ego — seen in a flashback to an on-set grudge match with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, spot-on) — but his unsavoriness goes beyond that. A war hero who probably murdered his wife, Booth’s wryness disguises a temperament for extreme violence. He goes off on his own cowboy escapade, driving a teenage hitchhiker to a now-dilapidated movie ranch from his past to investigate the cult that’s taken over the property. The youths lounge about on the raised boardwalks, as if waiting for a fast draw on the central dirt road, and their stares reciprocate the menace that Booth carries with him.
And then there’s Tate, located just one swooping crane shot away from Dalton’s swimming pool. Her role is less flesh-and-blood than the two men’s, but it’s the most essential; she lingers over the day’s proceedings like an angel. Robbie is terrific as an actress savoring the undeniable thrill of heading for the top of the world. Tate attends a screening of her new film “The Wrecking Crew” and relishes the crowd’s cheers for her klutzy performance. Robbie’s Tate grinning ear to ear at footage of the real woman is an immeasurably sweet but sorrowful gesture, mourning the unfulfilled potential of a life lost.
Ever since Eli Roth unloaded a machine gun magazine into Hitler’s face in “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino has been busy mediating historical atrocity through the unambiguous sadism of grindhouse vengeance. “Once Upon a Time” assumes its audience knows the Manson murders are coming, putting its leisurely pace on a collision course with fate.
Once the sun sets and the characters tune in to the night’s episode of “The F.B.I.,” the movie mercilessly accelerates. Suddenly, Booth and Dalton’s strained relationship has reached the precipice of a farewell, Tate is 8 ½ months pregnant, and long-haired hippies are clutching daggers and marching up Cielo Drive.
What follows is an unholy cocktail of mixed morals, erupting into the ghastliest, most feverish violence within a body of work that’s grown notorious for its fondness for bloodshed. And then, just like that, the nightmare ends and everyone wakes up. When Dalton and Booth irrevocably alter the course of Los Angeles’ evolution, they do so obliviously, hammered out of their minds.
Neither man is a hero — Booth is a belligerent thug, Dalton’s his enabler — but they accomplish a fundamentally heroic act. The rosy-eyed balm is made possible by that ugly, irresolvable contradiction. Retreating into fantasy, elegy nudges against farce and the movie leaves it to the audience to parse out the difference. It’s only appropriate that “Once Upon a Time” would beget a preposterous “happily ever after.”