Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Dir. Quentin Tarantino. 161 minutes.

Has-been actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) once verged on real stardom, but now features mainly in modestly budgeted Spaghetti Westerns and other eurodrivel. Together with his stunt double/valet/BFF Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), he struggles to keep pace with studios’ rapidly changing tastes.

Quentin Tarantino knows the rhythm conversation as well as any director working. Here, the cunningly artificial dialogue of the screen contrasts with the richly meandering, umm- and uhh-laden “real” conversations of performers between shoots. The usual Tarantino tics — car two-shots, credits in orange type and lengthy close-ups of actresses’ bare feet — are all on display, but “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” also lacks the annoying ostentation and edgy cruelty of “Kill Bill” or “The Hateful Eight.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is wandering and even relaxed, though there are some moments that hum with tension. One minutes-long sequence builds toward a showdown between two gunslingers, until Dalton forgets a line and retreats to his trailer in a storm of humiliation and self-doubt — a climax more gut-wrenching to the viewer than any shootout.

As has often been observed, this is a love letter to vintage Hollywood, but one with numerous cheeky postscripts. It’s genuinely provocative and amusing to see figures of reverence like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) poked fun at. Tarantino offers us something other than a dutiful recreation of Hollywood’s golden age by focusing on the absurdities and the improprieties of the kitschy ’60s. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” shows that an auteur’s love of the craft can make the familiar both unsettling and delightful.