ONCE UPON A TIME IN ... HOLLYWOOD movie poster | ©2019 Sony Pictures

ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD movie poster | ©2019 Sony Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Margaret Qualley, Julia Butters
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Distributor: Sony/Columbia
Release Date: July 26, 2019

Watching ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD, it’s easy to understand why writer/director Quentin Tarantino made the film. The 1969 setting gives Tarantino not only permission but a mandate to recreate the look and pop culture of the times. Since Tarantino is a filmmaker who loves his MANNIX and TV cigarette commercials, he’s absolutely in his element, and there’s a contact high from the sense of fun with this.

Tarantino has also by now been around enough actors and stunt people to have some notion of how different individuals approach different aspects of showbiz. Here, he gives us Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a movie star turned TV western star turned TV guest baddie of the week, who fears he’s going to turn into nobody whatsoever. Rick is spiraling into alcohol-fueled freefall. However, Rick has on his side loyal stunt double/assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is a much more mellow type, with a good heart, a great dog, and the ability to beat the crap out of people.

Rick perks up a bit when Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) rent the house next door (that is, up the private road and through the trees).

And then, for a very long time, we follow Rick and Cliff and Sharon around on their various Southland adventures. Robbie is endearing as Tate, and we’re charmed by her, even when we feel that her scenes go well past where we’ve gotten the point.

The scenes with Rick and/or Cliff are more uneven. There’s are a couple of great sequences when Rick is working as a guest actor with a studious child performer (Julia Butters, who is perfect). However, while nobody is going to quibble with the veracity of various interactions on and around studio sets and locations, there isn’t a lot that’s new in these observations. We feel a little bad for Rick (this would be easier if he didn’t feel so bad for himself, and if there were a little more to him), but we don’t feel either empathy or edified by seeing his experiences, especially as they don’t seem to be leading into each other. Cliff gets somewhat more interesting fare, especially when he crosses paths with Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and meets her friends.

Then there’s the issue of Rick and Cliff with one another. DiCaprio and Pitt project no more camaraderie than we’d see between two superstar acquaintances greeting each other at an awards dinner. Since their friendship seems intended as the heart of ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD, this is quite a problem. Worse, their scenes together are so emotionally flat that they’re almost off-putting.

Pussycat’s family is shown in the trailers, so mentioning them isn’t spoilery. To say much more about them, though, would be. Suffice to say that familiarity with certain particular earlier works of Tarantino may suggest where all of this is going, which of course can’t be discussed without revealing all.

Tarantino does a splendid job of evoking an era and an environment that give him joy. For a little while, his pleasure gives us pleasure. But since ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD runs two hours and forty-one minutes, that little while comes and goes again and again while the film is still running.

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