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Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood is surprisingly un-Tarantinoesque

directed by Quentin Tarantino

A buddy movie set in an idyllic LA on the precipice is one of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s best.

After all these years, it turns out that Quentin Tarantino’s best film is one that feels as if it was made by somebody else.

To be sure, in Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, many of the director’s notorious obsessions, kinks, and turn-ons are on display. Yet the qualities that have made Tarantino an enfant terrible – the obnoxiousness, the indulgent dialogue, the sadism and empty style – are mercifully absent. Here is a film laid way back, stuck firmly in cruise control.

The year is 1969 and, in a Hollywood where stars live and die by notoriety, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV cowboy on the wane. With dreams of breaking into film long dashed, he’s left to play goons and heavies in backlot westerns.

Rick lives in the hills above, where his neighbours are the newly famous newlyweds Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). At Dalton’s shoulder is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s stunt double who’s also his driver, DIY man, and gofer – “more than a brother but less than a wife”. When Rick stutters and despairs and throws tantrums in his trailer, it is Cliff who picks up the pieces.

All the flashiest scenes go to DiCaprio, but Pitt leans effortlessly into the satire. Here is a leading man who knows that he’s a leading man, quite happy to let his tanned arms and white smile do the heavy lifting. He gets the best line in the film, a shrugged, carefree “fair enough”.

There is a glee, even a smugness, with which Tarantino marshals the paraphernalia of the era: a jukebox of radio commercials, billboards, enormous cars, drive-in cinemas, knitted lace bell-bottoms, and the phrase “dirty f---ing hippies”. It’s a milieu entirely divorced from the radicalism of the 60s. Here, in idyllic LA, one can find pure pleasure and no confrontation – a little carefree haven.

Or not. Of course, everyone knows what happened to Tate. I was half prepared to recoil from Tarantino’s sleight of hand, as if he were pinning down August 1969 as a moment when America “lost its innocence”, or some other kind of cliché. And yet the film’s finale – best not revealed here – is cunning and audacious.

It’s an idea that can come only from a film-maker who, finally, has abandoned pulpy fictions and matured enough to take things seriously and think more deeply about his art.



Video: Sony Pictures New Zealand

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.