At nearly 160 minutes, watching Quentin Tarantino‘s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” does take an investment of time and energy while sitting in a darkened theater. But much like this auteur who relishes cinematic tropes of yore, those who watch movies for a living can’t help but share at least some of QT’s glee in recycling of glory (and gory) moments from Tinseltown’s past (watch the trailer above).
The vintage era here is the summer of 1969, when Woodstock shut down the New York Thruway, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and a mad man named Charles Manson terrorized Los Angeles with his cult of twisted followers who committed murder in his name. Manson makes a brief but lasting impression on screen but Tarantino is more devoted to following the shifting cultural change in Hollywood as Leonardo DiCaprio‘s aging cowboy star, Rick Dalton, has fallen hard times while his best pal, stunt double and go-fer Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, stands by his man while taking the fall for a buddy both in life and on screen.
As of this writing, “Hollywood” has a solid 87% positive Rotten Tomatoes score — right between 2012’s “Django Unchained’s” 86% ranking and 2009’s 88% tally for “Inglourious Basterds.”
As Vulture critic David Edelstein says, “For a while, ‘Once Upon a Time’ seems as if it’s going to be nothing but a series of extended digressions. But it’s shaped like a Western, and gets better, tighter, and more surprising as it moseys along, plainly building to the grisly, still-inexplicable tragedy that’s said to have ended the hedonistic feel of late-’60s Hollywood.” He has a few misgivings — he takes a shot at a Al Pacino‘s “hamminess” as an agent looking to convince Rick into doing spaghetti Westerns in Italy. But he later adds, “On its own terms, ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ is a farrago of genius.”
“The Washington Post’s” Ann Hornday is slightly less enamored with Tarantino’s fairy-tale twist inspired by a murderous spree inflicted on innocent people. “True to its title, it plays like a bedtime story concocted by a petulant child who insists on getting his own back from the people who poisoned his most honeyed dreams. ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is of a piece with the filmmaker’s alternate-history oeuvre that seeks to tease the audience with some of history’s biggest what-ifs, allowing us to believe for a few hours that pure imaginative will is enough to reverse the most grievous wrongs. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.”
A.O Scott of the “The New York Times” seems somewhat besotted by what Tarantino has wrought: “ ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,’ whose title evokes bedtime stories as well as a pair of Sergio Leone masterpieces, is Tarantino’s most relaxed movie by far, both because of its ambling, shaggy-dog structure and the easygoing rhythm of its scenes.” He also speaks well of the two leading men at the center of this tale, declaring, “DiCaprio’s baroque, exuberant emotionalism perfectly complements Pitt’s down-to-the-bone minimalism. They’re both terrific.”
Leah Greenblatt of “Entertainment Weekly” also has kind words for the film’s male stars: “DiCaprio and Pitt are probably as good as they’ve ever been in anything: one superbly channeling the outsize ego and fragility of an actor in early-midlife spiral, the other a sort of beach-boy Lebowski with a singular gift for sudden violence.”
“Rolling Stone” critic Peter Travers lavishes praise on two female portraits as well, Margot Robbie as starlet Sharon Tate and a pint-sized newcomer with out-sized attitude, Julia Butters, who holds her own in several scenes with DiCaprio: “What is most shocking about the film is its open heart toward innocence, Sharon in particular. Robbie plays her like a point of light undimmed by cynicism. She enters a theater to watch an audience watch her in a Dean Martin spy caper and stays to revel in their joy. Rick feels nurtured in his art by a fellow thespian, who is blunt, honest, and only eight years old. As played by the mesmerizing Julia Butters, the kid is another source of incandescence in a film where Tarantino gives hope the last word.”