Tarantino’s delight: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood defines an era through excellent performances

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio deliver career-high performances in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Image courtesy Columbia Pictures Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio deliver career-high performances in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Image courtesy Columbia Pictures

Delight is not a word you often associate with a Quentin Tarantino film, but damn if you don’t leave Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with a smile on your face. The delight is usually QT’s, who every few years gets to share his latest pastiche, a focused fever dream informed by childhood obsessions of exploitation films, Sergio Leone, and 1960s television. Most of his influences are reflections of the world around these subjects, tackling social issues through either literal-minded melodrama or metaphors set in a heightened reality—a hall of mirrors effect in which you can’t tell where the original begins and the copy ends.

This is part of the Tarantino experience; he truly enjoys the power of cinema and finds real value in mining its history for raw materials from which to forge new stories. He wants us to be as in love with his influences as he is, for our own sake.

As many of us remember from childhood, when someone wants to share their toys this badly they can become obsessed with the “right” way to play with them. A Tarantino story can take lengthy detours as his characters monologue about Superman comics (Kill Bill), or the minutiae of stunt driving (Death Proof). He’s at his best when his interests are crucial to the foundation of his cinematic world and not just window dressing. Inglourious Basterds used the Nazis’ self-aggrandizement through film propaganda and the flammability of film stock as narrative tools, and Tarantino squeezed every last bit of suspense he could from them, while employing his trademark circuitous dialogue as an interrogation tactic.

Because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in the time period most Tarantino films evoke, no one needs to wax poetic about the industry of old or what happens on a film set. They can just live it. Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of entertainment history and love of Los Angeles forms the backdrop of the film, freeing his imagination to run wild with his characters and dialogue, allowing his two leading men (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) the space to deliver the best performances of their careers. Not a moment in its 165-minute runtime is wasted, and though it more than earns its R rating, it’s far from the epic journey of cruelty that his previous period pieces have been.

All this talk and nothing about the plot? That’s partially by design, but here’s just enough to pique your interest. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is an actor in the late 1960s who was once the star of his own Western television series, “Bounty Law,” but mostly works as the villain-of-the-week. His stuntman/housesitter/chauffeur/best friend is Cliff Booth (Pitt), a veteran with a possibly shady past. Dalton lives next to two infamous people from real life, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha, though he has almost no dialogue). All three actors are complete naturals in their roles, and the greatest sequence is the one that juxtaposes how they all spend one fateful day: Dalton’s artistic and professional redemption, Booth’s encounter with the Manson family, and Tate enjoying her rising star by watching a movie starring herself.

If you learn what happens next or how it ends, the experience won’t be ruined, but watching the story unfold is part of the joy. Tarantino knows your expectations, and figures out how to use them against you in the most effective way, from his tendency for nonlinear storytelling to the dread that comes from his character’s proximity to key figures in the Manson family murders. Once Upon a Time is partially a riff on two Sergio Leone classics, Once Upon a Time in the Old West and Once Upon a Time in America, but make no mistake: This is a quintessentially American fairytale.

Local theater listings:

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

See it again: 

To Live and Die in L.A. R, 116minutes. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, July 31

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