A few years ago, Quentin Tarantino announced, with typical stop-the-presses grandiosity, that he would officially stop making movies after completing his 10th feature. It remains to be seen if American cinema’s reigning rock-star auteur will make good on this early retirement plan, but the rationale behind it appears to be sincere: If he goes out while still on top, he’ll cement his legacy and never begin the long slide into diminishing returns that some filmmakers experience as they grow older. Premiering yesterday at Cannes, 25 years to the day after Pulp Fiction hit the festival (and movie culture in general) like a hypodermic needle to the heart, Tarantino’s funky, unusual, sporadically sublime ninth feature, Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood (Grade: B+), shows no telltale signs of an artist losing his edge—QT remains in total control of his craft from first frame to last. And yet its creator’s anxiety, the one that seems to have inspired a premature exit strategy, is written all over the movie. It’s an elegy for a certain age of American pop-culture that may really be about the writer-director grappling with his own inevitable obsolescence.
Set in 1969, Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood takes place at the end of an era, a big moment of transition for the entertainment industry, when the New Hollywood was rushing in fast to kill the old one. In one of his usual brilliant exploitations of star power and image, Tarantino casts Leonardo DiCaprio—whose once-unblemished baby face has finally begun to show its first true signs of middle age—as the fictional Rick Dalton, a one-time giant of the small screen. Dalton, whose career peaked with a popular Western television show from the ’50s called Bounty Law, has been reduced to the guest-star heavy of primetime, getting his ass kicked weekly to make the young actors nipping at his heels look tougher—a hustle that a movie producer (Al Pacino) explains will have a “psychological effect on how the audience perceives [him].” Dalton, in other words, is a has-been whose days in the spotlight are numbered. Were he a real person, Tarantino would have attempted to revive his career by now, throwing him a comeback role in one of his own Westerns.
Dalton spends most of his days driving around Los Angeles with his friend, stunt double, and de facto assistant, Cliff Booth (fellow movie-star-of-a-certain-age Brad Pitt). Booth is more of a never-was; his only real claim to fame is the rumor that he killed his wife and got away with it, a bit of backstory that Tarantino disquietingly just lets sit there. He’s also a more mythic, deadpan figure than the rattled Dalton, which makes him the perfect fit for Pitt, who hasn’t found as strong and slightly unnerving an application for his aging-outlaw cool since The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, another movie about the death of one era at the hands of another. Booth and Dalton hang out sometimes at the latter’s swanky Hollywood home, which happens to sit right next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s house. If the film has a third lead character, it’s the very non-fictional Tate (Margot Robbie), going about her own life in the periphery of the shaggy narrative. Tate, of course, was murdered in 1969 by the Manson Family (Hollywood was originally slated to open on the anniversary of her death this August, until cooler heads or public outcry prevailed), and the movie keeps the possibility of that impending real-life tragedy percolating throughout.
It’s a note of vague but persistent dread in what’s otherwise one of Tarantino’s most meandering, even laidback pictures—a “hangout movie,” to quote his own parlance, stretched across stretches of California expressway and plunked down onto studio backlots. The director also hasn’t planted his foot this deeply into the real world for a couple decades. In the years since Jackie Brown—possibly his masterpiece, for this critic’s money—Tarantino has mostly stomped around in a genre sandbox of his own creation, toying with the conventions of war movies, kung-fu, samurai pictures, Westerns, locked-room mysteries, slashers, drag-racing exploitation films, and more. The Hollywood of his Hollywood isn’t entirely “real” either: Dalton’s fictional career affords Tarantino the opportunity to do another Grindhouse in miniature, offering snippets of imaginary projects (among them a hilarious series of fake spaghetti Westerns), even as the soundtrack of radio hits— by the Rolling Stones, by Simon and Garfunkel, by Deep Purple—keeps the film tethered to its chosen time and place. Yet focusing on the movie industry itself grounds Tarantino. His characters, at least, are real people this time, in multiple respects.
Like some of his earlier work, Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood often feels more like a collection of great scenes—a skillfully sequenced rock-album of a motion picture—than a wholly satisfying, coherent narrative. It’s baggy and loose and episodic, wandering off into tangents, like a flashback where Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) waxes rhapsodic about Muhammad Ali, before somewhat improbably getting tossed into a vintage car by Pitt’s shit-talking, shit-stirring stuntman. But there’s a strong through-line running straight across the film’s leisurely two hours and 40 minutes, and it’s a deep respect and empathy for actors and their relationship to their craft, reputation, and waning celebrity—not so shocking coming from Tarantino, who loves to launch rescue-operation comebacks for faded stars. In a wonderful mid-film passage, he drops Dalton onto the set of a TV Western, having him trade on-camera barbs with one of his effective replacements (real TV-Western star Timothy Olyphant) and off-camera banter with a child actor who may represent the new school of method performers invading the industry at the time; the sequence pulls DiCaprio’s character from the humiliation of a flubbed take to the ecstasy of a nailed one. And for all the preemptive discomfort folks have felt about Tate’s role in the story, Hollywood’s most moving moment may be the scene where the actor attends a public screening of The Wrecking Crew, and Tarantino frames Robbie’s face in close-up, soaking up Tate’s reactions to how the crowd reacts to her scenes. Is her elation, her profound feeling of validation, so different than the one splashed across Tarantino’s face during the six-minute standing ovation that followed last night’s premiere?
All the while, Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood keeps reminding us of the specter of imminent danger: the Manson girls, walking around the border of the story, until they enter it proper. The movie operates so pleasingly as a slice-of-celebrity-life that I almost wish this element wasn’t part of its blueprint, or at least that Tarantino brought the two strands together in a way that felt less glib, defensive and, well, pulpy. (To say more would risk saddening the director, who has pleaded with critics not to spoil the movie’s secrets in advance—a reasonable request, in my opinion, though some booing French journalists at the press screening yesterday begged emphatically to differ.) I was with Hollywood until I really wasn’t, but even its missteps are kind of fascinating, as an expression of Tarantino’s generational unease. Once the hottest new thing out there, he’s now part of an older guard, watching as a Hollywood he helped reshape goes through another sea change. The future is the enemy. In Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood, it looks an awful lot like murderous teenagers.
Tomorrow: Bong Joon-ho knocks it out of the park with an insane, ingenious farce about class disparity. Plus, more competition titles, these ones from Ira Sachs, Xavier Dolan, and Arnaud Desplechin.