When word got out two years ago that Quentin Tarantino had written a screenplay about the Charles Manson family murders, a cartoonish Q spin on real-life ultra-violence sounded fresh. And blood indeed flows in over-the-top ways in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, but those sequences get in the way of what could have been a better picture.
Where the auteur’s revenge fantasy propelled Inglourious Basterds, in Hollywood, it comes off as a distraction to what could have been a much tighter character study of an actor losing his grip on fame during a critical time in cinema history, with his ripped and profoundly unaffected bosom buddy serving up the comedy.
Aging TV lawman Rick Dalton (Leo-nardo DiCaprio) whines to his stunt double/personal assistant/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that his career is over. Dalton is having difficulty dealing with his dwindling prospects just as two Hollywood A-listers—director Roman Polanski (Polish actor Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)—have rented the home next door on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. (Helter skelter!)
Dalton dreams of befriending the couple who can possibly throw his career a lifeline, and Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood makes the case for star power being a real thing because the best parts of the two-hour, 41-minute movie feature its biggest stars, DiCaprio and Pitt, especially when they are together, but also in their scenes alone or with others. They transcend their own celebrity to make you believe they are who they are playing, that Dalton and Booth are just as real as the the thrill-kill cult they stumble upon.
But you actually get more Hitler in Basterds than you do Manson in Hollywood, as Damon Herriman shows up as Charlie early and briefly. (Talk about type casting: Herriman also played him in the Netflix series Mindhunter.)
He joins a long list of cast members who play actual people—including Robbie, Zawierucha, Emile Hirsh as Hollywood hair stylist and Tate’s ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring, Timothy Olyphant as Lancer star James Stacy, Austin Butler as Charles “Tex” Watson, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Bruce Dern as Spahn Movie Ranch owner George Spahn, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Luke Perry as Canadian TV actor Wayne Maunder, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Samantha Robinson as Abigail Folger, Lena Dunham as Catherine “Gypsy” Share, Mikey Madison as Susan “Sadie” Atkins, Madisen Beaty as Patricia Krenwinkel, Rumer Willis as Joana Pettet, and more—that serve as mere props to Dalton and Booth.
So do made-up characters such as the stunt coordinator played by Kurt Russell (who also narrates), the stunt coordinator’s wife (Zoë Bell), Dalton’s producer/agent (Al Pacino) and Manson Family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who is loosely based on the real Kathryn “Kitty” Lutesinger.
Dolloping on the Manson storyline as though it’s canned dog food plopped into a bowl does give Pitt enough business to justify his share of top billing with DiCaprio, but along with excruciatingly slow-to-develop scenes, we are left with a butt-squirmingly long movie.
While Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is not another Tarantino masterpiece, I advise anyone who grew up in Southern California in the 1960s to see it simply for the nostalgic trip it takes you on, one that is best experienced via a big movie screen. Here is a partial list of the many visual cues from that period: a George Putnam bus-bench ad; KHJ-AM radio bumpers; a black-and-white, pre-Partridge Family commercial with Susan Dey; a red-and-white Schaefer ambulance; and the one that really struck home, Seymour the Sinister. Look ’em up, millennials!
Old-timers will appreciate the well-placed music such as TV variety-show mainstay Robert Goulet’s rendition of “MacArthur Park,” the Hitchcockian instrumental that precedes our introduction to Dern (who had a small part in Marnie and starred in Family Plot for Hitch) and the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” before Dalton and Tate’s expected ends.
Oh, and make sure to hang out until the end credits finish rolling for the Red Apple cigarettes ad and a special Boss Radio plug by TV’s Batman and Robin. Wonder if I can still fit into my caped crusader Halloween costume?
* * * * *
The end credits of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood inform that frequent Tarantino cast member Tim Roth was cut from the picture, but you can still see him in a local theater this weekend in Julius Onah’s Luce. Roth and Naomi Watts play Peter and Amy Edgar, a liberal white couple in Arlington, Virginia, raising an overachieving, black, high-school senior (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) they adopted a decade earlier from war-torn Eritrea.
Luce Edgar is so successful at everything he does that his school’s administrators prop him up as an example to others. So does his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer)—until she is alarmed by something the student wrote in a class assignment. That prompts her to do some snooping, which only reinforces her worst fears and leads to confrontations with the cool-headed student and his parents brimming with white guilt.
Onah and J.C. Lee crafted a smart, sobering script that terrific pacing and an ensemble of solid actors bring to life and relevance. Harrison, who was bestowed a young-actor-to-watch award just before Luce closed this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival, delivers an eye-opening performance.
Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Now playing countywide.
Luce was directed by Julius Onah; written by J.C. Lee and Onah; and stars Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Opens Fri. at Directors Cut Cinema at Regency Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.