‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ Film Review: A Contemplative Quentin Tarantino Still Blows the Roof Off Cannes

Cannes 2019: Big, brash, ridiculous, too long, and in the end invigorating, the film is a grand playground for its director to fetishize old pop culture and bring his gleeful perversity to the craft of moviemaking

Last Updated: May 21, 2019 @ 11:37 AM

Quentin Tarantino has loomed over this year’s Cannes Film Festival ever since the lineup was announced on April 18 and he wasn’t on it. At the press conference to reveal this year’s slate, Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux went out of his way to say that Tarantino’s film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” was missing from the lineup simply because it wasn’t finished, and that he hoped Tarantino would complete the editing in time to bring it to Cannes.

He did finish and he did bring it. Boy, did he bring it.

Tuesday turned into Tarantino Day on the Croisette, with hordes of passholders clamoring, pushing and shoving to get into the first press screening and tickets at a premium for the official premiere. (It was also the only competition film to be excluded from the early morning press screenings restricted to a limited number of outlets.)

Tarantino has begged the press not to include any spoilers in reviews, and he had a Cannes official do the same on stage before the press screening began. (The announcement drew a few boos.) But it’s no spoiler (and probably no surprise, either) to say that “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is big, brash, ridiculous, too long, and in the end, invigorating. It’s a grand playground for the director to further fetishize old pop culture, to break things and hurt people, and to bring a wide-eyed glee and a robust sense of perversity to the whole craft of moviemaking.

But it also, curiously, shares a kinship with Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” a delicate memory piece that is one of the most moving films in the Cannes competition. Almodovar’s film is the work of a lion in winter, a director in a moment of crisis and reflection looking back on his life and career with regret and longing. Tarantino’s film could scarcely be more dissimilar stylistically, but you can see it as the work of a 56-year-old artist wondering about his place in a changing industry.

At least, that’s what his main character is doing. Rick Dalton is a hugely successful TV actor in the 1950s and early ’60s who wants to be more than that – but the industry is changing, and he’s not sure how he fits. (His options, basically, seem to be playing guest villains on TV series or heading to Italy to make sub-Leone spaghetti Westerns.)

Rick’s stunt double, aide de camp and best friend, Cliff Booth, has no such fears; he knows exactly who he is and what he can do, and even a slumping career (since his fate is inextricably tied to Rick’s) doesn’t seem to faze the guy.

The roles are as juicy as they come, and Leonardo DiCaprio (Rick) and Brad Pitt (Cliff) know exactly what to do with them. The spectacular talkiness of previous Tarantino films is in shorter supply in “Once Upon a Time” – but whether it’s Rick describing the plot of a Western novel to an 8-year-old co-star or Cliff facing off against a blowhard Bruce Lee, there are enough gems scattered throughout the film to make this worthy of the DiCaprio’s and Pitt’s first onscreen time together.

The film covers six months in 1969, but it’s filled with homages to (or outright re-creations of) old TV shows, old movies, old advertising jingles: Tarantino indulges in his obsessions as he gets to direct all the stuff he loved as a kid. He also gets to recreate the Hollywood of 1969 by tracking down just about every neon sign that still exists from that era, and re-dressing stretches of Hollywood Boulevard to look like the street of his memories.

(Back when the film was being shot, plenty of people were nitpicking about how Tarantino was using marquees and stores that aren’t actually 1969-appropriate – but if you think the guy has any interest in being a stickler for history, you haven’t been watching his previous movies.)

The Tarantino jukebox gets the kind of workout it hasn’t since “Pulp Fiction” (Roy Head! Paul Revere and the Raiders! Neil Diamond! Vanilla Fudge!), and for almost two hours and 40 minutes, Rick and Cliff wrestle with career and personal problems and, yes, cross paths both with Sharon Tate (Rick’s next door neighbor, played by Margot Robbie) and the Manson family (who host a memorable visit from Cliff).

The film takes its time, to the point where at times it starts to feel sluggish – but even the slower moments have delicious touches or wonderful cameos (ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Freakin’ Dern!) And slowly but surely, this bravura homage builds up to … something.

And that’s where the film becomes difficult to write about. Tarantino doesn’t want reviewers revealing “anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing this film in the same way” that we did, and it’s probably inevitable that I’ve already done that. But I’m not going to say anymore, because he’s right that the film needs to be experienced with fresh eyes, and its spectacular conclusion shouldn’t be foreshadowed.

Suffice it to say that “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (those ellipses are important, people) is Quentin Tarantino’s most contemplative movie until it isn’t.

Happy Tarantino Day, Cannes.