If there is any location in the collective American imagination that evokes an Edenic paradise, it would be Los Angeles in the 1960s. To think of it is to dream of it: The sound of Beach Boys harmonies filling the air, the plentiful highways providing traffic-free roadbeds for mammoth convertibles and Woodie station wagons with gas tanks filled up for 22 cents a gallon in a land where oil wells pumped on public high-school campuses, the weather always 72 and sunny, fresh-picked fruit coming down the 101, and money raining down on Californians new and old from aerospace and defense-sector spending… And, of course, all those movies and all those TV shows selling us on the dream.
Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the latest and greatest evocation of that place and time. About two-thirds of the way into the movie, at the beginning of what promises to be a historically terrible evening in the history of the city and the country, Tarantino shows us the twilight moment at which storefronts all over town begin to illuminate their signs—from a Taco Bell to the legendary Hollywood hangout Musso and Frank's to a downtown chili joint to a Mexican restaurant in the valley. The montage lasts all of 30 seconds, and it's quiet and beautiful and funny and iconic all at the same time.
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Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a fairy tale of a kind, as its title suggests—but it is also one of the most remarkable acts of historical re-creation in the history of the movies. More important, it is suffused with an unironic love for very nearly every aspect of L.A. it depicts. Tarantino loves the light. He loves the neon. He loves the red-leather banquettes in restaurants. He loves the Beverly Hills houses of old-timey goniff agents (Al Pacino is their representative in the movie) with their wet bars featuring built-in televisions. He makes us love the bad Western TV series and episodes that air on those televisions featuring the movie's protagonist, the rapidly aging TV performer Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who began his career by starring in and now seems to be sliding out of those Westerns by taking guest shots playing the mustache-twirling villain.
Rick Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in the house in which she is to be murdered later in the year, and so we follow her around L.A. too. And here, perhaps, is where Tarantino's love expresses itself in the most poignant way, because he portrays Tate as a kind, blissed-out, life-loving, simple girl—but maybe not so simple, since we see her go into a used bookshop and buy a first edition of Tess and the D’Urbervilles for her husband because she's just read it and loved it. (Her husband, Roman Polanski, made a movie of the novel a decade after the events depicted here.) On those little TVs all over town, we see commercials for forgotten movies like Three in the Attic and Robert Goulet warbling his heart out to "MacArthur Park," the most insane song ever written about L.A. Yes, Tarantino even loves Robert Goulet and "MacArthur Park."
And his love is infectious. Despite some horrifying violence, Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood is gentle in the manner of Jackie Brown, the most uncharacteristic movie in his oeuvre. This is the first lovable movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made, and it remains lovable even when it takes a deft turn straight out of the audacious storytelling he mastered in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. (It also represents a return to form after the misfire that was The Hateful Eight.)
There isn't a bad acting moment in the movie's 157 minutes, and DiCaprio is so spectacular it should end for all time the demented notion that he is some kind of silly man-child, an opinion peddled by those who continue to believe they are somehow speaking truth to power by stupidly opining that Titanic is a bad movie. DiCaprio painstakingly builds Rick Dalton detail by detail until you see this not-very-intelligent but still surprisingly talented and pretty decent man entire.
And yet it is Brad Pitt who delivers the performance of the movie, and of the year so far, as Dalton's loyal but enigmatic stunt-man-turned-aide-de-camp, Cliff Booth. Rick is the star and Cliff the guy on the fringes of the entertainment industry—but as things devolve, Cliff is the one who's truly larger than life. Almost by accident, he finds himself in a fight with Bruce Lee and later in an eerie staredown with Charles Manson's crew of psychotic camp followers. He is the last cowboy, the last Westerner.
Pitt's Cliff Booth is the most enduring Hollywood myth made flesh in Quentin Tarantino's glorious vision of a world that didn’t deserve to meet its end—either in the collapse of the old studio system that churned out Rick Daltons by the dozens or in the senseless slaughter of Sharon Tate and her friends on the night in 1969 when the darkness of the counterculture fell upon Los Angeles like a smog and forever poisoned Eden.