In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, writer/director Quentin Tarantino manages to cram everything he loves about movies and its golden age into one film. Of course, it's likely nowhere near everything, considering the incredible depths of his film acumen, but we'll take it. Tarantino, already a remix mastermind, has also become a superhero revisionist. He's inventing genres by mashing old ones together. With Inglourious Basterds, and now Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, "adjusted history" is becoming a thing in the title tinsel town.
Instead of focusing on the plot, which is better left unspoiled, let's talk about the talent in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The cast is illustrious. The writer is a legend. And the combination is sweet catnip for movie buffs.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays fading actor Rick Dalton, delivers a neurotic, immature, often hilarious performance. Down on his career after becoming a star in the '50s, Dalton sees everything crumbling around him, but it's not even that bad. He's just not enjoying the struggle after years being the center of things. Faced with possibly having to do Italian movies, Rick wails like he's being ushered off to Pelican Bay.
DiCaprio has never been so unsure of himself in a movie, which is very funny. He also hasn't cried this much since The Basketball Diaries. When he scrunches up that baby face, it takes you right back to the '90s when he used to cry face his way through every role.
Dalton's best buddy and stunt double is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who lives in a shoe box of a trailer next to a gorgeous drive-in. Cliff's a 30-year Hollywood veteran and a calming presence for Rick, despite the fact Cliff's livelihood rests in the fading actor's shaky hands. Pitt grins his way through the movie cocksure like a boxer. (He does fight Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet.) Cliff's got nothing but his fists and his pit bull, Brandy (another stellar performance). Oh, and also Rick, but Cliff seems to be the one with the answers.
Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood throws Rick and Cliff into a storm of celebrities. Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf), Lee (Mike Moh), and others show up at parties or on film sets. There are scenes on top of scenes of Hollywood life and the day to day minutiae of working in the industry.
There's also a parallel storyline to the adventures of Rick and Cliff involving Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), and about 20 young girls and a couple guys who make up the Manson Family. The setting invites you to wonder about the murders and whether or not anything will unfold as the movie goes on. Robbie is the movie star of the film as Tate, whose career was just taking off in '69. She enthusiastically heads to the theater to watch her movie with an audience and gives us a look at the true joy of being a film star. As all the characters' worlds merge in the third act, Tarantino pays everything off with one of the most gratifying endings of the year.
The Manson girls are led by Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who wins the attention of Cliff with her short shorts and hitches a ride with him. But she has tons of friends (Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Mikey Madison, Maya Hawke, and more, all have small roles) and they're all trouble. The ensemble makes everything more interesting because the players only get a scene or two to shine. Great directors can lure great actors into small roles. Who wouldn't want to be in a Tarantino movie? He also keeps things in the family. Old Tarantino hands like Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell, and Kurt Russell have mini parts, and the daughters of a few of his favorite actors and friends — Uma Thurman (Hawke), Bruce Willis (Rumer Willis), Andie MacDowell (Qualley), and Kevin Smith (Harley Quinn Smith) — all nabbed roles. This may be the most Hollywood movie ever made.
Tarantino's Los Angeles fairy tale pays tribute to more than just people, however. He and longtime lenser Robert Richardson reference the usual swell of past films with iconic shots (like the driving scenes), nothing new for a Tarantino film. The dialogue sings, as always. (Bruce Lee tells Cliff, "My hands are registered as lethal weapons. We get into a fight, I accidentally kill you, I go to jail." Cliff: "Anybody accidentally kills anybody in a fight, they go to jail. It's called manslaughter.") Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also made up of about a dozen smaller movies and TV shows, re-edited classics, like The Great Escape, that Tarantino inserts into the main action. Dalton isn't just an actor in name, he's brought to life. Tarantino's a mad scientist and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be his most comprehensive, re-watchable film.