As you’ve perhaps noticed, this hasn’t been a great movie summer. Now “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” retrieves the season. It is maddeningly inefficient but thoughtful and well-acted. And it is certainly one of the best, and the most generally unobjectionable of the films of director Quentin Tarantino.
It is set in movie town during the summer, 50 years ago, of the Sharon Tate murder by members of Charles Manson’s “family.” The film makes many Hollywood celebrities into characters — martial arts star Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, controversial Roman Polanski (a film director and convicted rapist who was married to actress Tate at the time of her death), Connie Stevens and the women in The Mamas and Papas singing group are among them.
The film also gives us a version of Clint Eastwood, actor Rick Dalton (played very well by Leonardo DiCaprio). Like Eastwood, Dalton leaves a successful TV Western, makes Westerns in Italy, and returns to southern California. But the personalities of Eastwood and Dalton are obviously quite different.
Emotional, often drunken Dalton has a friend, stunt double, and general wing man named Cliff Booth. Playing this part, Brad Pitt continues his drive to establish his cool but mature persona. The movie’s third point-of-view character is Tate, played by Aussie Margot Robbie, one of the real powers of contemporary film.
We follow each of them, often independently. Tate is living in a house formerly occupied by Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, producer of the great Paul Revere and the Raiders records, where Beach Boy Dennis Wilson was a frequent visitor. Madman Manson, whose scenes didn’t make the final cut of the movie, knew Wilson and through him got to know the house.
In the movie Dalton lives in the same cul de sac. Booth visits the “family” at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a real-life setting where “Squeaky” Fromme, who would later shoot President Ford, kept the owner (played by Bruce Dern) occupied so that Manson’s associates could live on the property.
We follow Tate to a local showing of “The Wrecking Crew,” a Dean Martin movie in which she co-starred. And we watch Booth retire to his Airstream trailer out by a drive-in movie, where he feeds his pit bulldog.
But more time is probably spent on Dalton. His best sequence concerns his work as a guest star on the TV western “Lancer.” Inspired by a 9-year-old method actress, he turns in a silly but effective performance as the villain, playing opposite the fascinating James Stacey (played by the equally interesting Timothy Olyphant).
As with most of Tarantino’s work, “Once Upon a Time” contains long stretches of material that don’t contribute to the movie’s main story. Q.T. may be self-indulgent, but his may fans love him for it. Here there is even a three-fall fight between Booth and Lee, a very inefficient way of proving the stunt man can defend himself.
This only vaguely productive sort of material also includes a summarized trip to Italy of six months, described by the great Kurt Russell, one of a couple of passages in the movie that violate the “fourth wall.” But during the long film’s third hour, viewers begin to feel the three narratives converging.
Then instead of giving us a recapitulation of actual events, “Once Upon a Time” takes off into an alternative story that allows the film’s writer and director to address a criticism of his work. He makes movies that are violent. Don’t the viewers learn violence from them?
Well, this movie has a response to that question. If that answer is not going to convince everybody, it will at least please Tarantino’s many, many fans.
The truth is, they’ve never had a Tarantino movie so good to admire before. And we haven’t had a movie this summer that is anywhere near as much fun for an adult to watch as is “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”