Early in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, we see a flashback of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, in better times, career-wise, starring in a World War II movie, using a flamethrower to burn a bunch of Nazis. It’s hard not to think of one of Tarantino’s previous films, Inglourious Basterds, a revisionist’s history of World War II where we cheered along as our heroes killed Hitler with a machine gun and saved the world from the scourge of Nazism. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood plays around with similar themes, a “what if?” world that, in its moments, feels good for a second, and then it makes us a little sad. I guess that’s the point. Ten years ago, when Inglourious Basterds came out, we all kind of thought of “fighting Nazis” as a thing of the past. But watching Rick Dalton fight Nazis takes on a renewed meaning and significance today, what with the sudden rise of white nationalism in America and in Europe.
I’ve heard people say they feel Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood displays a kinder, gentler, less angry Tarantino. I disagree. I think he’s plenty angry.
Is there a way to use the word “meandering” as a positive? Because Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is a *meandering* movie that doesn’t feature much of a traditional plot. I swear that’s meant in the most positive way possible.It’s like when you’re walking down the street, on a nice summer day, with nowhere to be, just looking around, enjoying your day. You are meandering, but it’s also enjoyable. You’re just taking it all in. This is a good way to describe Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. With a running time of 160 minutes, Tarantino has nowhere to be anytime soon.
We spend a good chunk of the movie-watching a shirtless Brad Pitt’s former stuntman, now basically a jack-of-all-trades personal assistant, Cliff Booth, fix a rooftop television antenna. Later, we watch Pitt’s Booth and DiCaprio’s Dalton watch an episode of FBI. (This might be my favorite individual scene of the whole movie. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton has a guest-starring role and Pitt’s Cliff Booth just sits there giving commentary. When Rick Dalton pops up in the episode, Pitt says, in a monotone voice, “Here comes trouble.”)
What Tarantino does in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is threefold. First, he’s there to set the mood of what Hollywood was like in 1969, from the perspective of two kind-of-washed-up has-beens. He’s also there to get in literally every reference that he can from this era. It’s so over the top it eventually becomes endearing. I mean, Norman Fell even gets a cameo. Third, he slowly sprinkles in sinister beats from the Manson family. Which, if you’re living in Hollywood around that time, I suspect that’s what it was probably like before the murders happen, just strange stories about all the weirdo hippies living out at the Spahn Ranch — a ranch owned by George Spahn (played by Bruce Dern) that was occasionally used for film shoots — who sometimes integrated themselves with famous people. So I’m sure someone at some party uttered the question, “Wait, Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys is hanging out with them?,” in disbelief. So by the time we get to Charles Manson in this movie, Tarantino has done a pretty great job of setting up just how odd all of this is.