Aided by a great cast, Quentin Tarantino steps back in time to 1969 with “Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood” and the result is a purposely fractured fairy tale that has all of the director’s trademark fun.
Blending fact and fiction, Tarantino sets his L.A. story around Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a ‘fictitious’ once-popular TV actor who watches his ‘based on real’ neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) experience the film success he so desperately seeks. Showcasing Hollywood’s fickleness for celebrity, Tarantino gives us both sides: Rick’s desperation in seeing his own star fall while witnessing Sharon’s joy as her star rises.
Tarantino likes twisting history: by using the real-life career of Clint Eastwood as Rick Dalton’s template, Tarantino has Rick fail where Eastwood succeeded. Instead of experiencing Eastwood’s rise to stardom from TV’s “Rawhide” to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films, Rick leaves his hit TV western “Bounty Law” only to watch his own film career flounder. When Rick’s insecurity as an actor sets in, DiCaprio plays it to the hilt. With a slight stutter and succumbing to sudden waves of panic, DiCaprio gives a great performance.
Refusing to take the advice of agent Marvin Schwarzs (an effective Al Pacino), Rick cashes in on his former fame by eking out a living on various episodic TV shows. Knowing his career’s sinking, Rick leans on his friend/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) for support. Laid-back and amiable, Cliff fits the bill by being at Rick’s side to ease his stress. As Cliff, Pitt fits the bill too. Coolly aloof, Pitt reminds you of the fun you had watching him play Tarantino’s stoner in “True Romance.”
While Sharon Tate enjoys a brightening future, Robbie physically personifies her happiness. Giddy and smiling, she basks in her newfound fame. Partying at the Playboy mansion or hanging out with fellow stars Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Mo), Sharon’s also happy being pregnant with her equally-successful director/husband Roman Polanski’s baby. But Sharon’s bright skies begin to darken when Tarantino starts to connect “Once” to Sharon Tate’s real-life tragedy. When Cliff offers a hippie girl named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a ride home, he sees her home’s a commune and senses trouble. After meeting a girl named Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and Pussycat wanting Cliff to meet a man named Charlie, we know where we are: we’re alongside Cliff in the Manson family compound.
Forget history and what you know. Just as he had in “Inglorious Basterds” (where a fictitious group of WWII Nazi-hunting soldiers were the scourge of a peripherally-present Adolf Hitler), Tarantino has surprises in store. “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is a movie that wildly, comically and violently veers off the rails. But it’s all good. With a blend of mirth and mayhem, it’s classic Tarantino. In Hollywood, the director is God. Thankfully, Tarantino is a merciful one. “Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood” is Tarantino’s love letter to a bygone era- an energetic, atmospheric L.A. story that’s nostalgically heartfelt.