Consistently great acting rise above wistful tale

Friday, August 9, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 32

A strange thing happened as I watched “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” the new movie from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino: I grew sad.

That was strange because the only things I’ve felt while watching a Tarantino movie is admiration for his film craft, levity, due to his often clever and humorous dialogue, and boredom, due to his often self-indulgent and drawn out dialogue.

I’ve also been entertained while watching selections from Tarantino’s filmography, but generally find his work to be more intellectually and aesthetically engaging than I do fun. But I’ve never felt sad before.

It came as I realized Tarantino was telling the story about a moment in history not as it happened but as he perhaps wishes it happened. There’s a palpable sense of loss and wistful longing at the heart of “Once Upon a Time” that lingered with me long after seeing the movie.

“Once Upon a Time” is said to be Tarantino’s love letter to 1960’s Hollywood. This is an apt description.

The movie takes place at the end of the decade, on the eve of the Tate murders. Tarantino marks this date as the dividing point between the turbulent years of protest and reform in the 60’s and the growing commercialism and conservatism of the 70’s. (A clip of the outside lights being turned on at a Taco Bell is one of the most telling shots in the film.)

Tarantino must also see this point in history as the dying gasp of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This notion is depicted through two of the movie’s primary characters: actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman, Cliff Booth.

Played with award-winning finesse by Leonardo DiCaprio, Dalton is the former star of the television western, “Bounty Law” (which seems to be patterned after “Wanted Dead or Alive”). His light is fading, though, as the kind of leading man he portrayed goes out of style and he tries unsuccessfully to transition to film.

Brad Pitt portrays Booth, Dalton’s long-time best friend and stuntman. Pitts’ performance is more nuanced and dialed back than DiCaprio’s but no less terrific. If there’s one thing about “Once Upon a Time” that’s consistently great, it’s the acting.

This is especially true of Margot Robbie’s radiant turn as actress Sharon Tate.

Take the scene in which Tate attends a public screening of “The Wrecking Crew.” After settling into her seat, she looks nervously around the theater, uncertain about how the audience will react to her performance. After everyone laughs at one of her bits, she relaxes and enjoys the moment.

All this is communicated through expressions that are as bright as a star. I’m now convinced Robbie’s luminescent smile is the thing that’s beaming up at John Travolta when he opens the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”

Robbie’s performance made me miss the way movies used to be. The Golden Age of Hollywood was a simpler, more innocent time. Although Tarantino seems to have a soft spot for this period, too, “Once Upon a Time” is an uneven expression of that sentiment.

The film is packed with great scenes, each of which serves as an absorbing vignette. For example, convinced the hippies living on the ranch where Dalton once shot “Bounty Hunter” are taking advantage of the farm’s elderly owner, Booth checks in on his friend.

Tarantino is a master at stirring fear and dread in an audience, which by now is all-too familiar with his bursts of horrific violence, and uses this scene to skillfully tighten the noose around his viewers’ neck.

However, no matter how enjoyable each segment of “Once Upon A Time” is, the film has a meandering, aimless quality that becomes frustrating as it shuffles toward the end of its nearly three-hour running time.

The astonishing final scene is worth the wait and fully redeems the movie, but I believe the haul to get there can make even the most patient moviegoers antsy.

That said, if I were put in charge of trimming the movie down, I wouldn’t know which bits to remove because they all offer something worthwhile, even if it’s just pure entertainment. (Tarantino clearly had fun applying his directing style to old genres, such as the spaghetti western, and that often translates into fun for the audience.)

Tarantino loves to hear his characters talk, so some of the most striking scenes in “Once Upon a Time” are those of two individuals driving through long stretches of L.A. without saying a word. Perhaps the loss he feels when he thinks back on that period in history leaves him without the words he needs to express himself.

Thankfully, he’s still a master of the language of film.