(Spoilers, if you care for this sort of thing)
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, no one has lung cancer, Sharon Tate lives, and Paul is dead. Well, expect Quentin Tarantino to write and direct an alternative history of The Beatles someday. His film depicting the intersections of several characters in a six-month period in 1969 that culminates in the Manson murders lacks rhythm; it’s often a shapeless piece of filmmaking. You may watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and wonder what the hell was the point. Savor it then as a triumph of art direction first and an elongated example of Tarantino’s latter-day obsession with rewriting history. Charlie Manson reduced to a footnote, yes, but also a film where in the right state of mind dog food is as savory as mac and cheese.
The main thread stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, star of the fifties TV western Bounty Law but at a career crisis as he deals with the consequences of accepting a quickie supporting role as a villain in the CBS series Lancer; drinking hasn’t yet made him sodden but he is wont to weep over his crappiness as an actor while sucking on endless cigarettes. At his side is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), stunt double and war hero; also man Friday, chauffeur, and best friend, a man so supremely sure of his place in this world that if Rick ever put his hand on his thigh I doubt he’d brush it off (also: wife killer, a plot point dispatched in an insert, a twist that Tarantino has no idea what to do with). Modeled on the relationship between the late Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, Rick and Cliff’s mutual dependence is the film’s most poignant element, another exploration of male heterosexual affection that has obsessed him since Harvey Keitel unexpectedly took to Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Call it Love and Death in American Film; or “Come Back to the Soundstage Ag’in, Rick Honey!” The only rival for Cliff’s affection, a pitbull named Brandy, plays her role of feminine support without a murmur.
Driving Rick crazy is the fact that Roman Polanski, red-hot after Rosemary’s Baby, has moved in next door with girlfriend/model Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) — next door, yes, but higher on the canyon, an indication of social status (Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson show a Hollywood of culverts, dust, and rock as much as glimmering boutiques and Mexican restaurants with valets and lounges: a desert city, barely reclaimed). Enthusiastic and free of guile, Tate still has the manner of a teen who stepped off the bus and hopes to bump into Steve McQueen (who, inevitably, makes an appearance). On the same afternoon when Rick is filming his part as a baddie Sharon visits a screening of The Wrecking Crew, the 1968 spy comedy in which Dean Martin reminds Rick of what he might look like in a few years. She makes sure the bored box office employee and manager recognize her, and when the latter comps her ticket and offers soda she revels in these small attentions. Robbie’s sweetness plucks the sting from these scenes: she’s not lording over plebeians, she’s asserting her right to play by the town’s rules. Settled in her seat, dirty bare feet propped up, she’s delighted that the audience laughs in the right places. In Hollywood, Tarantino argues, even the wannabes get off on watching others watch them.
Tarantino places this sequence when Once Upon a Time in Hollywood most needs it: the friction-free second third during which he cuts between the theater and the filming of Lancer. The scenes exist because Tarantino and his production designers had the money to recreate how Old Hollywood asserted itself against the encroachments of the New. By the looks of things Once Upon a Time… is an excuse to place his favorite actors in the fantasies he’s carried around since working at that Manhattan Beach video store. The film stops for ten minutes so that Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, uncanny) can settle a score. Kurt Russell (also the film’s narrator) and Zoë Bell appear as a stunt coordinator and his wife, respectively — part of the immortal Hollywood community. Despite the pleasure of DiCaprio and Pitt’s chemistry, Tarantino hasn’t written enough sides to their characters; they don’t bore, exactly, but the behavioral demonstrations in which Tarantino’s actors have often excelled don’t go far enough. The exception, a sequence set at the Manson-controlled Spahn Ranch, is a small masterpiece of suspense building and the use of long shot. Cliff, dropping off a young female hitchhiker, realizes he’s stumbled into a commune whose residents may have done something to its proprietor (Bruce Dern, reprising his mean old coot bit from Nebraska, plays Spahn). Using his body in character, Pitt does some of his tersest acting; he doesn’t let his growing sense of danger affect his bonhomie.
I don’t doubt that Tarantino, the most self-aware of modern American directors, intended this sequence — Spahn Ranch as a miscellany of abandoned western sets — as a metaphor for decline: a hippie death cult scuttles through the detritus of Hollywood, while Tex Watson leads paid horseback excursions up the hills. In other words, Hollywood suspected something was up involving underage girls led by a failed singer-songwriter, but it collectively shrugged until it couldn’t. “Should there be marital unhappiness it will go unmentioned until one of the principals is seen lunching with a lawyer,” Joan Didion wrote in 1973, too kindly.
Some critics have noted Tarantino’s conservatism, confusing it for or conflating it with nostalgia. The latter requires of its practitioners a basking in what was, sighs and whoops included; the former depends on a reckoning with the present that must result in destruction. A return to the old order means destroying the new one; restorations often create a New Old Order unfamiliar to survivors of the Old Old Order. In the Tarantino of Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, conservatism evinces an ambition to transcend itself that ends with its affirmation. Sharon Tate isn’t just not murdered, according to Tarantino’s ideal of restoration, she isn’t even a target; Tex, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), and the Manson gaggle don’t merely fail, they’re murdered themselves, in hideous ways. Rick’s career gets a second wind as an spaghetti western star, effectively wiping out Clint Eastwood — and with an Italian wife to boot (he’d learned a few things from a child actress of frightening precocity on the set of Lance, and there isn’t even a hint of pedophilia). Cliff asserts himself as Defender of the Old Order to the accompaniment of Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
And Sharon Tate? Happily pregnant, married to a director of enormous gifts, career in bloom, newly obliging to her neighbor Rick. Tate was the right kind of hippie: far from a fanatic, a fellow traveler trying to survive, like Frank Sinatra in his Nehru jacket (Cliff, who’d rather drink and smoke himself to death, waits a long time to smoke an acid-dipped cig). The counterculture madness, according to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was stopped by the bravery of two men armed with pitbulls and blowtorches. Hollywood itself isn’t immune to the stories it tells, none more poignant to stars (and directors) teetering over oblivion than stories about itself.