I really enjoy putting myself in Quentin Tarantino’s hands, but I’m not sure how crazy I am about being in his brain.
They come as a package, of course, and we get both the good and the bad in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” in which Tarantino’s brand of classical moviemaking is a thrill to behold.
Unlike most blockbustermeisters, Tarantino cares about finding the best way to tell a story. He wants to show us things in a way we’ve never seen before. He wants us to delight, as he does, in what the movies can do that no other art form can. That’s why, when you watch his work, you feel confident the camera is always in the most interesting place, the edits happen at the strongest moments and the performances feel playful and original.
For most of this movie, those elements are in service to the shaggiest of shaggy-dog stories. It’s 1969 and we follow three characters over the course of a couple of days. Two are fictitious: Leonardo DiCaprio plays self-doubting actor Rick Dalton, who starred in a TV series in the ’50s but barely ekes out a living now, and Brad Pitt plays his stunt double, Cliff, a cool customer with a violent streak.
The third is real, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an up-and coming actor now known for only one thing — she was murdered in her home by followers of Charles Manson.
There’s almost no plot. Instead, Tarantino (and invaluable cinematographer Robert Richardson, who also shot “Inglourious Basterds”) have fun summoning the music, the billboards and the buildings of 50 years ago, along with a surprising number of Rick’s film and TV projects, including one that got away from him: “Hollywood” uses trickery to insert Rick into the role in “The Great Escape” that made Steve McQueen a superstar. While Rick is chatting with co-stars and Cliff is picking up hitchhikers, Sharon is wandering into a screening of her movie “The Wrecking Crew.”
As played by Robbie, Tate is a sunny, friendly person who seems to shine goodness on virtually everyone she touches, however briefly. Tarantino makes an especially interesting choice when Tate goes to the movies. Although he already has demonstrated that he has the technology to insert a contemporary actor into an old movie, he chooses not to do this with “The Wrecking Crew.” Instead, we see Robbie as Tate watching the actual Tate on-screen, which forces us to contemplate the real woman. What Tarantino wants to do, I think, is to indicate what a vibrant talent the actual Tate was and to make sure we know there’s more to her than someone who got butchered.
That’s all to the good, but it’s when “Once Upon a Time” jumps forward several months that it’s not clear if Tarantino knows what he’s saying. I’m not going to get even close to spoilers, but, in the last fifth of the movie, the writer/director’s use of the Tate story begins to seem opportunistic and tone-deaf. The way Tarantino manipulates time is effective — the dawdling beginning giving way to the night of the murders, when everything begins to happen very quickly — but his depiction of Tate’s story leads him to a dead end that seems to steal from Tate the respect the rest of the movie has worked to create.
An interesting thought occurs to me: Tate is a supporting character in “Once Upon a Time” (that fairy tale allusion is not a coincidence, by the way). It’s mostly devoted to the loopily entertaining antics of Rick and Cliff. But, once the movie was over, Sharon Tate was all I was thinking about.
I’m not sure I’m onboard with the way this skilled moviemaker accomplishes it, but I do think Tarantino achieved what he set out to: There are literally dozens of characters in his movie, many played by bigger stars than Robbie, but Sharon Tate outshines them all.