Quentin Tarantino has built a career out of celebrating movies by referencing his favorites, but with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he salutes the process of making them. America’s master of zippy dialogue and high-minded pastiche consolidates those skills into a sprawling vision of the film industry in 1969, but Tarantino’s infectious love letter doesn’t have much of a plot. Instead, the filmmaker’s weirdest movie merges pre-Manson Hollywood with the looming specter of hippiedom. The result is a lopsided cultural mashup as viewed through Tarantino’s exuberant cinematic filter.
It’s also content to hang out with history, take liberties with the details, and allow co-stars Leonard DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to unleash a pair of endearing performances. Tarantino’s desire to salute the creative thrill of storytelling is an inviting and welcome presence in American cinema; his ninth feature suggests he really ought to work more often. But all the vivid callbacks to antiquated TV westerns and the forgotten characters in their orbit fall short of coalescing into much more than that.
Still, the movie has ambition to spare, and Tarantino’s layered script juggles so many narrative threads that it takes on a dazzling rhythm of its own. The core of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a buddy comedy about wayward television actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), whose starring role on the TV series “Bounty Law” brought him plenty of acclaim but few inroads to the movie business. His devout stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) contends with a dwindling career of his own, having tarnished his reputation long ago and forced to serve as Rick’s driver instead. Not that Rick has a lot of places to go: Saddled with playing the bad guy in random broadcast cameos for now-obscure programs like “FBI” and “Bonanza,” Rick has reached a crossroads in his career in tandem with American culture itself.
Cue the hippies: The Manson gang figures into the story, mostly as a lingering threat as Cliff locks eyes with a seductive young woman named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) on more than one occasion as he roams around town. Before the movie gets there, however, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” belongs to Rick, whose dwindling screen presence has left him saddled with playing the bad guy each time out. A pushy talent agent (Al Pacino, in a broad, fleeting caricature) urges Cliff to consider the ramifications: “It’s gonna have a psychological effect on how people see you,” he says, in the first of many times where it seems as though Tarantino may be assessing his own career with the material.
As Rick’s conundrum builds, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” digresses to introduce his neighbors — namely, Roman Polanski (a barely present Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, in a subtle, mostly wordless performance). Tarantino imagines the actress as an affable presence with little to do but roam the city, at one point wandering into a theater to enjoy her 1968 espionage tale “The Wrecking Crew.” There’s a sincerity to these aimless scenes that suggests Tarantino’s own affection for Tate runs deep, despite her scenes carrying the tension of knowing how the real Tate was murdered several months after the movie’s starting point. The dark cloud of history lingers over even the lighter scenes, and generates an intriguing suspense (similar to Tarantino’s other historical fictions) around how the filmmaker will choose to resolve that inherent tension.
The payoff is rushed, counterproductive, and ultimately beside the point. That’s because the bulk of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” revolves around its richly peculiar middle stretch, set across one long day and packed with circumstances. Ever since that Madonna speech opened “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino has excelled at crafting familiar movie archetypes and deepening them with irreverent, soulful details. Here, the result is his ultimate hangout movie: Rick and Cliff hang out on set. Cliff hangs out at home with his Rottweiler, Brandy (who steals the show more than once). Rick hangs out with a loquacious eight-year-old co-star on the set of a TV western that calls for him to showboat like he’s never showboated before, and contend with the emotional uncertainty of whether he can still deliver the good stuff. Tarantino provides plenty of scenery-chewing material for his actors, who manage to deepen the masculine veneer with a pathos that creeps into the material.
In the meantime, Tarantino plays with intricate set pieces propelled by extreme unpredictability. The best of these finds Cliff following Pussycat to the abandoned Spahn Ranch, which Manson’s satanic commune has transformed into its menacing lair. As Cliff roams the property and the army of women (including a snippet of Lena Dunham) stare him down, Tarantino assembles the buildup to a grand Western showdown. The bit goes nowhere, but that’s the brilliance of Tarantino’s point: the joy is in the filmmaking, no matter where it goes.
Which is good, because “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” doesn’t go anywhere in particular. The pleasures lie in the small moments, from nostalgic easter eggs (and callbacks to Tarantino’s own work) to endearing vignettes. Nothing beats the image of DiCaprio on the verge of tears, experiencing the creative catharsis of giving a good performance. It’s the most sincere moment in Tarantino’s three decades of work.
And it’s matched by astonishing recreations of the era, from a prolonged window into the filmmaking of the era to the joy of watching the end result. Tarantino’s reaches the apex of self-awareness as the story winds down, even pausing to allow the two men to watch an episode of “FBI” for minutes on end and provide live commentary. A clumsy voiceover ticks off the names of spaghetti western directors, from Peroni to Corbucci, as if Tarantino reverse-engineered the script by starting with the callouts and building the narrative from there. The constant pileup of names and programs often gives the impression of the filmmaker browsing his private collection, pointing out highlights from the era, but never plucking a title off the shelf.
Fortunately, there’s enough appeal to the chemistry between Rick and Cliff that “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” doesn’t need to vindicate its story with nods to the past. Tarantino creates homegrown universes like nobody else, and here he assembles a wondrous cartoony window into the past: Robert Richardson’s colorful Los Angeles cinematography echoes Robert Elswit’s in “Inherent Vice,” with swooping visions of hilly geography basking in neon lights. The production design is impeccable; when Cliff speeds around Burbank, he’s practically driving through a documentary.
Nevertheless, “Once Upon a Time” is an unapologetic fantasy of the kind Tarantino has relished in his recent spate of projects, and this one seems to exist in dialogue with its forebears. There’s even a late monologue from one of the Manson killers about the fetishization of murder and violence in entertainment that registers as Tarantino reducing his most conservative critics to the worst possible caricatures. From there, the filmmaker settles into business as usual. There’s no point in spoiling the specifics, but needless to say, the movie careens into a form of historical revisionism familiar from Tarantino’s other recent work. After a movie built around a surprising degree of restraint, he can’t help but let himself go. As “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” makes clear, it’s hard to keep a good showman down.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures releases it theatrically on July 26, 2019.