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'Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood' Is Tarantino's Most Personal Film In Years

Jul 26, 2019
Originally published on July 30, 2019 12:03 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Quentin Tarantino's new movie "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood" is set in and around the film and TV industry in Los Angeles in 1969, the same year the city was jolted by the Charles Manson murders. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star as a TV actor and his stunt double, leading a cast that includes Margot Robbie, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood" is a nearly-three-hour buddy comedy anchored by two of the world's biggest stars and set against a sprawling recreation of 1969 Los Angeles. It's also the most personal and resonant film that Quentin Tarantino has made in years. That might be an odd thing to say about a story that tackles the Charles Manson murders and gradually builds in tension before erupting in scenes of astonishing violence. But Tarantino's down and dirty B-movie world operates by its own emotional logic, and there's a tenderness and a melancholy to this movie unlike anything he's done since "Jackie Brown."

Like that great 1997 film, "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood" is both a love letter to LA and a bittersweet rumination on failure and regret. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an actor who once starred in a popular TV western in the '50s and early '60s but whose career has since stalled. He's like a parallel universe version of Clint Eastwood, who never made it big. He lives in a mansion on Cielo Drive that he may not be able to afford for much longer, and he looks with envy at his next-door neighbors, Roman Polanski, the hottest director in town, and his actress wife, Sharon Tate.

Rick leans heavily on Cliff Booth, his loyal stunt double and best friend, played by Brad Pitt. While this is the first time DiCaprio and Pitt have appeared on screen together, their natural rapport suggests they've been doing this forever. Rick drinks and mopes around and bemoans his failure, and Cliff pulls him out of his funk, again and again. Cliff is a good guy to have around when things get tough. He even holds his own in a fight on a set with Bruce Lee, played amusingly but too briefly by Mike Moh.

But Cliff also has a dark side, a violent past that frightens some of Rick's colleagues, like Randy, a stunt coordinator, played by Kurt Russell.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Rick Dalton) Look, Randy, I'm asking you to help me out, man. If the answer is no, the answer is no - not no with excuses.

KURT RUSSELL: (As Randy) Hey, man. This ain't a [expletive] Andy McLaglen picture, you know? And I can't afford to hire a bunch of guys to smoke cigarettes and sit around talking to each other all day on the chance that I might use them. I got a four-man team here, Rick. If I need more than that, I got to get it approved. And, you know, I got to look after my dudes.

DICAPRIO: (As Rick Dalton) Hey, and if your dudes were a better match for me, I'd say, OK, you got me. But that's not the case, and you know it. He's a great match for me.

RUSSELL: (As Randy) Yeah, yeah. No, I know (ph).

DICAPRIO: (As Rick Dalton) Hey, you could do anything you want to him. Throw him off a building, right? Light him on fire. Hit him with a Lincoln, right?

(LAUGHTER)

DICAPRIO: (As Rick Dalton) Get creative. Do whatever you want. He's just happy for the opportunity.

RUSSELL: (As Randy) Rick.

DICAPRIO: (As Rick Dalton) Yeah?

RUSSELL: (As Randy) I don't dig him. And I don't dig the vibe he brings on a set.

CHANG: Few directors are as passionately committed to their own movie love as Tarantino, and here he gives us a playfully warped, through-the-looking-glass vision of LA, spotlighting classic locations like Hollywood's legendary Musso & Frank Grill and the now-closed Van Nuys Drive-In. The fabulous production design is crammed with golden age movie memorabilia, some real and some fake. But this is also Tarantino's most relaxed movie in a while, and although it may test your patience with its languid rhythms and low-key hangout vibes, every moment of it pulses with feeling.

It's also an unusually sensitive movie about actors and their insecurities. Rick's drunken breakdowns on the set are contrasted with a subplot centered on Sharon Tate, played by a luminous Margot Robbie. There's a beautiful scene when Sharon goes to the theater in Westwood and watches herself in the 1968 spy comedy "The Wrecking Crew," basking in the audience's appreciative laughter. Robbie's performance becomes the movie's soulful center, an unabashed tribute to Tate's spirit and her memory.

The real-life Tate and her unborn child were murdered in August 1969 by members of the Manson cult, a tragedy that the movie addresses with an audacity but also a sensitivity that I wouldn't have thought possible. Tarantino has drawn a lot of criticism over the years for his use of violence, especially against his female characters, and also for his bold rewriting of history in movies like "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained."

I'm loath to give away what happens at the end of "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood." Given the director's track record, it's both what you might expect and also not. It comes to an extraordinarily wistful and moving close that suggests the times may have chastened Tarantino. This is his first picture not released by his longtime distributor Harvey Weinstein. The famously effusive director has been unusually tight-lipped in promoting the film, an understandable but odd decision for such a clearly personal work.

But the movie speaks eloquently enough for itself. It captures a precarious moment between the last gasp of the old Hollywood studio system and the cinematic renaissance of the 1970s that would eventually give rise to the '90s independent film movement. That could make the movie something of an origin story for Tarantino himself, but if so, it's a decidedly moody and reflective one. Tarantino has said that he will direct just one more film after this, but it would be hard to imagine a more fitting swan song than "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood," a fond farewell to the dream factory he loves.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On Monday's show, we look at the bizarre world of insects and why we can't live without them. Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, professor of conservation biology, tells us why fruit flies are more useful than we think and how cockroaches could be vital to our survival. Her book is called "Buzz, Sting, Bite." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KEEP ME HANGIN' ON")

VANILLA FUDGE: (Singing) Set me free, why don't you, babe? Get out my life, why don't you, babe? Ooh. You really don't want me. You just keep me hanging on. You really don't need me. You just keep me hanging on. Why do you keep coming around... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.