Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 hit “Pulp Fiction,” which I saw for the first time at age 12, changed the way I thought about movies.
Tarantino’s fame stems from his ability to take archetypal characters and standardized plot structure, turn them upside down, shake them up and give the audience something new.
For instance, the scene in “Pulp Fiction” when Butch (Bruce Willis) shoots Vincent Vega (John Travolta) — who had been absent from the storyline for a long time — scrambled my young brain.
I’ve been conditioned to expect the unexpected in any Tarantino film, which is what made the Oscar-winning writer/director’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” such an unexpectedly normal viewing experience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly demands a rewatch. An hour into the movie, I was waiting for the Tarantino needle-drop. Two hours in, I still hadn’t found it.
The story dances around the real-life story of the Manson Family, and is clearly building toward the night of the Tate murders. That Tarantino needle-drop does eventually come in a big, “Inglourious Basterds”-esque way for the climax — Chekhov’s flamethrower and all.
A similar thing happened with Tarantino’s third film, “Jackie Brown.” Coming off his rollicking, uber-witty, comically violent, rule-breaking and inventive “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown” was considered to be his most mature, sensitive and normal movie to date. It was disarmingly different than his previous two movies.
“It wasn’t weird on purpose; it was different on purpose,” Tarantino said recently on The Ringer’s “Quentin Tarantino’s Feature Presentation” podcast. “Normally, I’m going to be coming from a place where I’m going to try to top myself to one degree or another. But then the success of ‘Pulp Fiction’ was such a phenomenon that there’s no way I’m going to be able to ever top that, at least as far as the next film is concerned. So I purposely decided to go underneath it and do a more personal (story), and basically do what I would do now at this age.”
My anticipation of the Tarantino-iest parts of “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood” to come to the fore is a personal problem. It’s unfair to the movie and to Tarantino in the same way the confused critical response was 22 years ago to “Jackie Brown,” which is now, in hindsight, propped up as possibly his best work.
Because there’s a lot to love about his newest feature. A lot.
The story follows actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It’s the first time these two stars have shared the screen, and it is cinematic dynamite. Though this is one of the greatest all-star casts ever assembled, the story is centered around Dalton and Booth, with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the Manson Family operating in the periphery. The rest of the stars (Al Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant — to name a few) mostly exist in brief cameos.
Dalton is a former TV Western star whose endeavor into movie stardom was a failure. Now a has-been doing one-episode arcs on television, Dalton is grappling with the mediocrity and impending doom of his Hollywood career.
It’s DiCaprio at his best. Not that he ever isn’t at his best. But DiCaprio is almost always a larger-than-life character that fills the screen with extrovertedness — from Jack Dawson (“Titanic”) to Jordan Belfort (“The Wolf of Wall Street”). Rick Dalton is the most real and vulnerable character I’ve seen DiCaprio portray. He’s emotional from the onset, as in an early scene when Hollywood producer Marvin Schwarzs (Pacino) enlightens him about his status in the industry. Later in the movie, while filming a scene for “Lancer,” a young actress tell Dalton his performance was the best acting she’d ever seen, and Dalton breaks down crying on set.
With Dalton’s decline in status, so goes Booth’s chances at work. If Dalton isn’t getting jobs requiring stunts, or getting jobs at all, Booth has to resort to being Dalton’s gofer.
Tarantino has a gift for weaving in his own experiences and fascinations into his stories, and he does that more in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” than anything else. Tarantino’s obsession with the intricacies of the movie industry and the glory years of Hollywood shows itself in the most glorified and terrifying ways.
Hierarchy and status are everything, and we simultaneously see the downward trajectory of Dalton, while getting the upward trend of the 26-year-old Tate. Their career arcs have reached a temporary equilibrium, metaphorically but also literally, as Tate moves into the house next door to Dalton’s in Beverly Hills.
The meta-commentary on 1960s television and the city of Los Angeles in the film sometimes went over my head, but I can still appreciate the obsessiveness Tarantino has with representing the era — even if I didn’t catch all the Easter eggs.
The most simple interpretation of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is that it’s just a fun hangout with DiCaprio and Pitt. That alone was electric enough to make this one of the best films of 2019 and Tarantino’s career. And the fact that I’m willing to return to the theater for another viewing to appreciate all the film’s nuances makes it time well spent.
Warner Strausbaugh is a Colorado Springs resident and page designer for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him with questions and feedback at email@example.com.