Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ blurs fact and fiction for a loose, freewheeling ride

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

There are mountains of words that can be said of Quentin Tarantino's newest work, but his casting of Leo DiCaprio is just right. Though Leo's abilities have remained a constant question (in Tarantino's case, it's a newer one), no other man in late Hollywood has been allowed to age through so many distinct and unflattering physical phases while an industry and its auteurs contort themselves to craft roles that befit his changing image. He's a symbol, at least to me, of what men have been allowed in screen careers — and what women traditionally have not. From the heartthrob years of The Beach and Titanic to the Dapper Leo period (know it by the side-parted hair, the fine suits, and the tiny guns) of The Departed/Shutter Island/Inception era, climaxing with the smug, boozy bloat of The Great Gatsby and Django Unchained phase, Hollywood has always taken care of its Oscar-destined golden boy, like all its Robert De Niro protégés. (For the record: "ses protégés" translates literally to "its protected"; just witness the career of Bradley Cooper as proof.) Since Leo finally got his Oscar for method hamfest The Revenant and got in better shape, what now? How can we regard his new mission, his future going forward toward horizons we can't yet see? The answer seems to be in the imperative. Relax.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is, as I mentioned, a match — for it's pathologically relaxed and largely plotless, a movie that less swims than floats in life's big, vague questions and pervasive insecurities, adorned with a fabulized late-'60s texture in the knowingly false way its title implies. Themes of time, aging, death, and obsolescence loom large, but death's the greatest anvil for the presence of Sharon Tate as a character (played by Margot Robbie). Known better as a "Manson Family" murder victim than for her brief, promising screen presence, Tarantino casts her — alongside a mostly absent Roman Polanski character, her real-life husband — as the happy, well-heeled neighbors of DiCaprio's increasingly sour and anxious Rick Dalton, a Western actor taking on progressively lesser villain roles in television who is (when we meet him) barely treading water. As his opposite, a stranger and a younger foil filled with abortive promise, Tate presents a challenge. How do you move past the grisly circumstances of her murder, bearing witness to her as a person with a robust inner life of her own, as she lived and was? That's something that film as a medium — at least in theory — should allow with a bit of empathy, but it doesn't happen here. (She has entire movies that achieve this on their own.)

Across several lengthy but fairly superficial scenes, we watch her go about her days: she dances at a party, hosts one of her own, runs some errands, and catches a matinee at a Westwood theater, her richest and most lingered-over scene. The movie she sees is one of her own, and she thrills both at negotiating free admission and watching not just herself projected but in watching, too, the sparse audience watch her onscreen. But if Tarantino's goal in all this is to know her, it's hard to say he manages to do so — for in this, her most telling scene, she scans instead as a gender-flipped projection of himself. Tate, as he finds her, leads a privileged life, constantly beaming in the glow of her own charms. It's a romantic depiction that can't possibly reflect her real life or her relationship with Polanski (there are many divergent accounts) — or the intricate ebbs and flows of anyone else's. Instead, she's in essence dead on arrival, with eyes for little but her own accomplishments, legacy, and place in history. Like a lot of stars in some respects, she's a figure distanced from herself but blissfully unaware of it.

Tarantino's featuring of women has always been complicated — more external and figurative than psychologically acute — but here it feels reduced and flattened. Film history's tragic martyr is made out to be little more than that, a bygone symbol of youth, life, vigor, and potential, resurrected with far less empathetic insight than — for instance — Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (a movie Tarantino has fiercely derided). Coming from Tarantino, a man of 56, this simplistic-as-written vision of a lively-as-acted performance doesn't wear well; it feels Wikipedia-level deep in insight and research, psychology, and texture.

If the interplay of Tate and Dalton, with their roots in diluted mixtures of revisionist fact and fiction, makes the movie sound honed or focused, then I'd better offer some clarification: ...Hollywood is Tarantino's most loosely bound work to date. For a guy who's generally excelled at weaving together casts as broad and seemingly disconnected as L.A.'s urban sprawl, he struggles here to join characters who live on the same block and work in the same industry. Though Tate as a figurehead looms large, most of the movie's focus lies on Dalton's relationship with Brad Pitt's character, Cliff Booth, Dalton's stunt double, driver, and frequent gopher. The two are basically drinking buddies, conjoined by waning careers and professional necessity, with even their difference in status (Dalton lives in a mansion, Booth in a trailer home) providing little visible friction. Large swaths of the movie are devoted to Dalton's on-set struggles and performance anxiety, allowing for intermittently rich stagings that alternate easy, sometimes cheap comedy with depictions of commercial hackwork. In the best of these scenes — a Western in which Dalton plays the villain at a saloon, Ralph Richardson's camerawork blends with the on-set TV director's, forming a Venn diagram within the scene that's textually rich (though better as a scene) in much the way Tate's theater experience is. Is Tarantino, facing his own future obsolescence, undermining his work here? Is he questioning whether it rises to the level of the cheap Westerns he's affectionately showcasing here? What separates his fable of America from these TV Westerns' versions of the same?

It's hard to say, for if Tarantino's hit a wall (as his intimations of planned retirement and the movie's limitations seem to indicate), ...Hollywood seems to pace along it, acknowledging its presence, more than it attempts to ever scale it. Not so much a story, ...Hollywood is more a manifestation of daydreaming uncertainty, a snapshot of some basically imagined people at a moment in imagined time. What it lacks in drive it strives to offer in texture, revising history and blurring fact to fit the contours of its author's fantasies. Like his last three movies, which do the same thing (albeit with more urgency), it provides an alternate history, a kind of allegorical remedy for historical facts and injustices: a cure for the common truth. But unlike those movies when they're most on their game, ...Hollywood doesn't bear much truth within it; it's a halting formal and artistic performance. Warmed by comforting sentiments and bright performances but low on meaning, discipline, or courage, this is Hollywood mythologizing its own history and tragedies. Courting obsolescence by fielding inert anxieties about the same, ...Hollywood is a fable as old and familiar as the industry itself.

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.