'Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood' Is Quentin Tarantino at His Most Playful

once upon a time in hollywood
Having some cheeky fun! | Sony Pictures
Having some cheeky fun! | Sony Pictures

This review was originally published during the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

It's difficult -- impossible, really -- to talk about what makes Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood so good without talking about what happens in it. That's exactly what Quentin Tarantino, in a special letter to Cannes attendees back in May, pleaded for critics not to do, and it's true that the most rewarding way to watch his newest movie is go into it knowing next to nothing. Its promotional material has done a good job of keeping things mysterious, especially at hiding the fact that, underneath all the traditional hyper-stylized Tarantino trappings, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood might be his sweetest, most empathetic film.

It's the final days of Hollywood's Golden Age in 1969, and aged actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (an extra-square jawed Brad Pitt) are struggling to find work within a rapidly evolving industry. Rick eschews the up-and-coming spaghetti western industry blossoming across the Atlantic, instead opting for bit parts in TV shows where he's stuck playing one-off villains. Over the years, Cliff has evolved from his stunt double, to his stunt double and his driver, to his stunt double and his driver and his very good friend. The two travel together, drink together, visit sets together, and sometimes kick back and watch TV together.

Also, Rick also happens to be Roman Polanski's next door neighbor, which is where the B-story comes in, and follows Polanski's wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), then a rising star in Hollywood nothing but hopeful about where her career will take her. There's a ton of archival footage in this movie (and lots of footage of DiCaprio made to look archival), and one extended sequence sees Tate sit down in a theater to watch one of her own pictures, smiling ear to ear as the crowd cheers for her character.

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Saying any more would be saying too much, so I'll stop there. Yes, Rick and Cliff get mixed up with the Manson family cult, even though Charles Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is barely in the movie -- an oddly hilarious choice. And, yes, a ton of Tarantino mainstays make a few small, welcome appearances. (You'll know them when you see them.) What's most rewarding about Hollywood is Tarantino's absolute commitment to the time period: You can tell immediately that this is the kind of thing he's been itching to make all along. It's totally immersive, from the old Columbia Pictures fanfare opening right at the beginning, to the cars parked on the sides of the roads, to the ads for Roy Rodgers and Trigger, Combat!, and The F.B.I., Sergio Corbucci name-drops, songs on the radio from Deep Purple and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

It's an arrant celebration of a very special era of filmmaking that was wild and weird, throwing whatever you had at the wall and hoping something stuck. American westerns shot all over southern Europe by a bunch of Italians?? Who knew! (The title itself, naturally, is taken from Sergio Leone's 1968 film Once Upon a Time in the West.) Hollywood delights too much in its own aesthetic that the Tarantino-style over-the-top squib-heavy violence, when it comes, is actually quite brief. It's much more focused on creating an idealized version of the best of the Good Old Days, when filmmaking still felt like something totally new.

once upon a time in hollywood
Simply having a blast! | Sony Pictures

That's not even mentioning the level of playful detail that you only get with a Tarantino movie. In an inspired stylistic choice, all the music in the film is diegetic: any song you hear starts off as someone playing it over speakers, or out of a car radio. Brad Pitt drives for long scenes down stretches of LA highway, and every time the camera cuts, he's in the middle of a different song. There's even a small moment where you hear someone putting on a record and the song jerks to a stop several times as they pinpoint the right place to set down the needle.

It's redundant at this point to say that DiCaprio and Pitt are absolute superstars, but they're drinking some special superstar juice for this movie. Pitt is electric. He's so handsome and has such an immediate casual onscreen presence that it's impossible not to pay attention to everything he says. And there's not a weak link in the supporting cast: Margaret Qualley is excellent as a floaty hippie Manson girl, and in a fit of inspired casting Damian Lewis appears for one scene of expository dialogue as Steve McQueen.

There are times when the film struggles to find its tone, trying to both emulate1960s cinema and imbue it with a thoroughly modern vibe. Most of the time it works, especially during its funnier moments -- and this movie is very funny. I'd also be remiss not to mention the absolutely overwhelming, preposterous number of feet in this movie. If there is a woman onscreen, chances are you will see her bare feet in the next shot. Is Tarantino in on his own joke? Probably.

The end of the '60s, with its horrific homegrown cult violence that killed any sense of safety left in America, was the death of the Golden Age, the death of an artistic era that people like Tarantino can't help but try to honor. His love for those years is in every frame of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a movie made all the more remarkable for its strange moments of soft sweetness.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.