Thursday, July 25, 2019

Tarantino: adrift at the end of the '60s

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt excel in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not everything about the movie clicks.
A preview screening of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was preceded by a contest. Members of the audience, many in costume, were asked to decide who had done the best job of representing their favorite character from director Quentin Tarantino's previous eight movies. I bring this up because the costumes (and the effort that some members of the audience put into them) suggest something particular about Tarantino, something that seldom applies to other filmmakers: Tarantino has a committed, devoted, and demonstrative fan base.

It's no small thing for a director to generate that kind of enthusiasm and it has been a long time since I've been at a screening where the pre-movie atmosphere was so contagiously upbeat. Normally, I disdain promotional efforts, but I have to admit that, after some initial dismay, I enjoyed all the anticipatory zeal.

So, in my view, did the movie meet expectations? I wish I could answer that question with an emphatic yes or no. But for me, the answer turns out to be blurrier. Put another way, parts of the movie are enjoyable and parts -- shocking considering who made the movie -- drift toward dullness.

Let me break it down:

Tarantino builds his movie around two major characters, a once-popular film and television actor (Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton) with a fading career. Dalton's stand-in and stuntman (Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth) functions as the actor's devoted aide. Cliff provides Dalton with friendship and support.

At the same time, the movie rubs shoulders with real-life events of 1969, the shadowy operations of the Manson family as it makes its way toward the now-famous Tate/LaBianca murders. The Manson family hovers like a putrid cloud over the counterculture, waiting to unleash a bloody, destructive rain on its purported sweetness.

These two parts of the movie eventually must intersect. As it turns out, Dalton lives on Cielo Drive next door to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

Among his many skills, Tarantino has been a master of creating movies with moving parts while, at the same time, energizing each narrative thread, wheels within wheels or something like it. This time, not all of the parts move, some stagnate, and I wouldn't say that Once Upon a Time offers Tarantino's sharpest dialogue.

The major performances in Once Upon a Time do, however, stand out. DiCaprio infuses his portrait of a narcissistic actor with deep pathos. Not only is Dalton trying to salvage a sagging career, but he's also desperate to prove to himself that hasn't totally lost his acting chops to alcohol, indulgence and the industry's increasing indifference to him.

Pitt's work as Cliff represents another triumph. Less ego-driven than his boss, Cliff has a loosey-goosey spirit that's underlined by toughness. When the screenplay raises questions about whether Cliff murdered his wife, we're not sure what to make of this guy. Pitt delivers a comic classic when his character smokes a joint that has been dipped in LSD. And a scene in which Cliff confronts Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a studio backlot comes close to justifying the price of admission.

Not surprisingly for a sprawling movie, Once Upon a Time has a large cast. The actors who register include Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, one of Manson's followers, a teenaged harpy who projects levels of bravado she couldn't possibly have earned. At the same time, her street-kid pluck catches Cliff's eye.

Robbie's Sharon Tate emerges as a blithe presence, a starlet floating wide-eyed through her life, either partying or reveling in the small parts she's played in movies. She seems a bit vacuous, a woman happy in her world.

Tarantino also dots the movie with references to the kind of '60s flotsam for which he presumably has some fondness. These are embedded in the movie when characters listen to the radio, watch TV or drive past movie marquees. They become tiresome, self-conscious in-jokes.

Although Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn't have much of a story, its atmosphere -- LA in the '60s -- surrounds the characters. It's the air they breathe.

Now, it's impossible to talk about the movie's ending without spoilers. I'll say nothing, except to say that it allows Tarantino to indulge his taste for comic violence, something at which he has few peers. One other aside: Tarantino knows movies, but I wouldn't turn to him for historical interpretation.

What to make of all this? I saw the movie as a grab bag of episodes, some well-constructed, others slack. And I wouldn't call the movie an endorsement of the counterculture. Both Dalton and Booth are contemptuous of hippies. They live in show-business isolation. If anything, the movie displays more affection for bygone TV (shows like Mannix than for other aspects of the '60s.

There's also something disturbing about the fact that the movie draws most of its tension from what we know about the looming Manson crime. When Cliff visits the Spahn ranch where the Manson family resides, the movie becomes intensely creepy.

What I've most enjoyed about my favorite Tarantino movies (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies) is their audacious desire to entertain on their own terms. I guess that leads to my last word. I found Once Upon a Time a movie to be savored in pieces, sketches that never amount to a fully realized painting.

Tarantino may have wanted to flood a single movie with jaded savvy and affection for parts of the culture he once avidly consumed, all topped with fairy tale flourish. Does the approach work? Sometimes, but not for all of the movie's two-hour and 40-minute running time.

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