Two men, one woman—one of them real-life, two fictional. One at the beginning of a career, one at the end, and one without much of a career at any point. Seemingly disparate stories are intertwined by a fateful history, or, rather, they could have been intertwined, if only in our imaginations.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a famous TV cowboy. Or, he was. Now his career is faltering and he’s stuck with short-lived appearances as a villain whose inevitable fate is to be quickly offed by the good guys. He’s stressed about it.
One thing Dalton has maintained, if not his stardom, is his friendship with his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth doesn’t double much anymore—mostly he just drives Dalton and does other odd tasks for him. As Booth blithely admits, he is Dalton’s “gofer,” and he’s fine with it.
Then there’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The Sharon Tate. Roman Polanski’s ethereal, hippie wife. Unlike Dalton, she’s just getting going in Hollywood—playing major, if not starring, roles in some of the biggest movies of the era.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is almost three hours long. The movie saunters. It’s not a high-octane bloodbath like many of Tarantino’s movies. Nor is it a showdown-at-the-O.K.-Corral movie like Dalton’s Westerns. There are some of these things. But it’s more like Polanski’s “Rosemarie’s Baby”—a slow burn with a hint of lighthearted, playful zest.
Dalton continues to stress over his sputtering career. Tate goes to her own movie to soak up the audience’s reaction. Booth feeds his dog.
Gradually, though, these stories converge. For those who remember the gruesome events of late-summer 1969, with Tate, her friends, and Charlies Manson’s freaky “family,” there is a foreboding, a tension, an inevitability lurking in the shadows.
Except Tarantino does what he wants with historical details (remember, for example, when the “Inglorious Basterds” assassinated Hitler?). There’s no telling how this one will end.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is part charm, part tedium—which is perfectly encapsulated by Brad Pitt’s feeding his dog, or driving around, or walking, or just looking pretty for sizeable swaths of the movie. Things just kind of happen. A little bit here, a little bit there. The movie just shows you around a bit—lets you get to know some interesting characters.
Personally, I’ve got nothing against slow, methodical character development. But a lot of this cinematic scenery begs the question, “What for?” Like, why do we need to spend four minutes watching Pitt make Mac ‘n’ Cheese? What’s the point? Were these scenes—their length, in particular—supposed to be amusing? Or informative? Or useful to the plot? There are loose ends, diversions and side stories that don’t go anywhere. And a lot of seemingly superfluous action.
But it is also a charming movie, with charming characters and funny vignettes and real human feelings and emotions. Oddly, the ending may just make the whole thing worthwhile.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use and sexual references.