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Once Upon a Hollywood

(2019) *** 1/2 R
161 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Zoe Bell, Mike Moh, Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Hammond, Lena Dunham, Luke Perry.

/content/films/5171/1.jpgSay what you will about Quentin Tarantino, but the man makes a heady stew of a movie. His ninth, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, makes a typically flavorful meal of its many leftover ingredients. It also feels like a culmination—content finally joined by the movie gods to form—for at last, the moving-picture magpie has lighted on Hollywood as his setting and, in no small part, his subject.

For his purportedly penultimate film, Tarantino quantum-leaps back to 1969. In February, fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) laments his career. “It’s official, ol’ buddy,” he tells his erstwhile stunt double and only friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). “I’m a has-been.” Dalton’s salad days as the star of TV’s “Bounty Law” are behind him, and after a few big-screen flops (like Western “Tanner” and WWII pic “The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey”), he finds himself relegated to playing the “heavy” of the week as a nomadic TV guest star. While cementing Rick and Cliff’s Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham dynamic, Tarantino has a ton of fun recreating ’60s action films and shows (as well as their sets).

Rick’s nerves have given him a stuttering tic, foreshadowing trouble for his latest guest shot, on Lancer (one of three real shows Tarantino visits, the others being The Green Hornet and The F.B.I.). As Rick wrestles his demons on set, Cliff does his thing in his recent capacity as Rick’s driver and personal assistant. In the process, a flirtation with hitchhiking hippie chick Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) leads Cliff to old stomping grounds, the Spahn Movie Ranch, where a mysterious commune has sprung up around some guy named Charlie.

While playing out compelling scenes in the moment, Tarantino also meticulously lays the groundwork for upcoming scenes, most prominently by positioning as Rick’s next-door neighbors actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, treated as glorified decoration) and director Roman Polanski (Rafa? Zawierucha). The film’s second act skips ahead six months to the Summer of ’69, a telling time of hope, change, and peace met with violence. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes Tarantino’s nostalgia to a conclusion both logical and illogical, historic and fantastical, building to a black-comic climax that’s both generous in its wishful thinking and gleeful in its ultraviolence (see also Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained).

True to form, Tarantino has made another exquisitely crafted film that chases poor taste, mature filmmaking with a juvenile prank as its punchline. The contradictions are part of the bargain, and Hollywood feels somehow both more and less than the sum of its parts depending on the wavelength you tune in to. More than anything, Tarantino’s films are about their own movie-ness, and with that more true than ever, one has to reach to coalesce universal themes: it’s about mostly inarticulate male friendship, about the inevitability of change that comes with time, but more so about how movies are our wish fulfillment and actors suffer their insecurities and anxieties for our pleasure.

On the surface are all the signs of the usual Tarantino wank-fest, prompting spot-the-reference ecstasy for movie nerds (starting with the film’s neo-Leone title). There’s the “oh, hey!” casting—including Luke Perry in his final role, Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen, and Nicholas Hammond (the first live-action Spider-Man) as Sam Wanamaker—and larky sidetracks like a monologue from Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) that prompts an impromptu exhibition match, and the digital grafting of DiCaprio onto The Great Escape. As for Tarantino’s infamous foot fetish, it’s never been more blatant (all the young ladies, and a couple of the guys, prop up their bare feet).

Though the question “What the heck is this thing really about?” nags, there’s no denying the greatness of Pitt’s seemingly effortless comic performance and the lasting impression that he and DiCaprio are the screen team you didn’t know you needed, zen cool married to restless, self-loathing ego. Again and again, Tarantino conjures up beautifully made scenes, like the hangout between Cliff and his pitbull Brandy or the slightly absurd friendship Rick strikes up with an eight-year-old Method actor (Julia Butters, terrific). The film is all over the map and off the grid, set in the Hollywood of Tarantino’s dreams.

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