“ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD” — 3½ stars — Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Damon Herriman; R (language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use and sexual references); in general release; running time: 161 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s always been obvious that director Quentin Tarantino has a singular love for movies. While his penchant for profanity and violence remains intact, that love comes gushing through in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” a romantic, revisionist tribute to a transitional point in big-screen history.
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” has also become Tarantino's highest-grossing opening to date, overtaking “Inglourious Basterds.” And like that 2009 film, which imagined a team of Nazi hunters behind Axis lines in World War II on the hunt for Hitler, “Hollywood” takes a historic setting and gives it some substantial creative revision. In this case, the target is 1969 and the subject is the infamous Manson Family murders.
The title is a nod to Sergio Leone’s epic “Once Upon a Time in the Old West,” and like that film, “Hollywood” walks us through the crisscrossing lives of key characters who represent the era.
We first meet a Hollywood veteran named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Known for his performances in TV Westerns, Rick is at a professional crossroads. One path offers supporting bad guy roles that will keep him in Hollywood but cost him his hard-earned leading man status. The other leads to Italy, where a career in spaghetti Westerns will extend his time on the marquee.
Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s longtime stuntman and de facto best friend who lives in a trailer behind a popular drive-in movie theater and seems to be paying the professional price for rumors he murdered his wife. In exchange for being Rick’s gopher, Cliff keeps a loose grip on a precarious livelihood.
While Rick and Cliff are fictional characters, they interact with real history. Rick’s neighbor is the venerable director Roman Polanski, fresh off “Rosemary’s Baby” and newly married to blonde starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). With Polanski off on a shoot, “Hollywood” follows Tate around town as she parties at the Playboy Mansion, watches herself on screen at the local cinema and flirts with boyfriend-turned-friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).
The different narratives mostly flow independently but frequently catch a common thread: cult leader Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), who is holed up in a deserted movie set with a harem of disheveled teenage girls who look nothing like the hippies you heard about in Mamas and Papas songs. Manson holds a grudge against the previous resident of the Polanski home, and in one ultra-tense scene, Cliff picks up a hitchhiking member of the “family” and pays a visit to the old set where he worked eight years earlier.
Eventually Rick winds up taking the Italy option, bringing Cliff along for the work, and Tate gets pregnant. “Hollywood” moves at a leisurely but not plodding pace — you hardly notice the film’s 161 minute run time — and Tarantino expertly builds the story to an inevitable showdown with Manson.
Along the way there are the signature Tarantino moves, such as lengthy, musing dialogue scenes — including a funny exchange between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the “Green Hornet” set — and plenty of backseat perspective shots of characters driving around town. The soundtrack, as fans might expect, is loaded with familiar and not-so-familiar tunes from the era, and Tarantino packs in enough pop culture references that the whole film begins to feel like the ultimate 1969 time capsule. (In one brief but fantastic sequence, a series of well-known businesses like the famous Cinerama all turn on their lights in turn as dusk falls, setting the stage for the film’s third act.) All three of “Hollywood’s” leads nail their roles, and Tarantino’s knack for building tension comes in spades.
But “Hollywood” also comes with enough of the director’s usual R-rated content to justify a substantial audience warning — although the profanity and graphic violence is mostly limited to the film’s finale. As for the finale, while almost cartoonishly violent, audiences might find themselves more surprised at their reaction to the violence, which leaves the film open to interpretation.
Altogether, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is a violent if loving tribute to a bygone era, and a bizarrely wistful “what if” take on a dark chapter in history. If you’re already a Tarantino fan, you’ll likely love it, and if you aren’t, you’ll find plenty — though perhaps not as much in previous films — to validate your distaste. It’s hard to imagine Tarantino would have it any other way.
Rating explained: “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” draws a strong R rating from regular adult profanity (as well as occasionally graphic dialogue), depictions of drug use, some sexuality, and graphic violence (mostly taking place in the finale).