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

Big, brash, ridiculous, too long, and in the end invigorating, the film is a grand playground for its director to fetishize old pop culture

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino has begged the press not to include any spoilers in reviews of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” and there’s very good reason for that.  His ninth feature film is one that takes a turn some will find exhilarating and others will find offensive — but those are emotions that should be experienced in the moment, in the dark and at full volume.

Still, 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 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-Sergio 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. And these aren’t just glimpses, mind you: The guy digs deep and creates whole swatches of old/new shows and movies.

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 more than 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 at the Cannes premiere, 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 — and either celebrated, despised or something in between, all of which are likely to happen — with fresh eyes and as little foreshadowing as possible.

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