Oddly enough, I believe it was Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood filmmaker Quentin Tarantino that coined the term “hangout film.” In a 2003 New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, the genre-manipulating writer-director stated that there are certain films in which you simply hang out with the characters. The pressures of a plot-driven narrative are thrown out the window in favor of existing in a space with figures you could imagine calling friends. Whether it’s a class of teens partying on the last day of school (Dazed and Confused), or a dude in pursuit of completing his living room with a nice rug (The Big Lebowski), these kinds of films can serve a paragon of Zen wisdom.
As the 1959 Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo said: “Just stop talking. Just let it be.”
Tarantino has carved out an exceptional career for himself by sticking to this philosophy of storytelling. While his films include a lot of talking and big moments (most of which conclude with exploitative violence), it’s the in-between scenes that feature character observations and reflections that make his movies dance like they’re at Jack Rabbit Slims. Tarantino manufactures stories that flow organically, comment on social norms and celebrate cinema’s crowning achievements.
In many ways, Tarantino’s ninth (and maybe final film), Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, pays both tribute to groundbreaking movies from the late 1960s (such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Wild Bunch and The Graduate) and Tarantino’s own filmography. You will find breadcrumbs that lead to any of his previous works. The pace of the narrative resembles the gentle nature of Jackie Brown and Death Proof, but it has flashes of the pizazz and energy of the Kill Bill films and Inglourious Basterds. Once Upon a Time is arguably Tarantino’s most hushed cinematic experience. It allows him to give his vocabulary muscles rest to instead focus on the reality of what it was like to be alive in the 1960s.
Once Upon a Time is about an actor and his best friend/stuntman who are living in the twilight years of their careers. The actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), feels as though he has reached his cultural expiration. The 1960s have come along and Rick’s time of combing his hair into a pompadour has slipped away. Now it’s all peace signs, shaggy hairdos, and acid-infused excursions, and Rick is hitting a roadblock in this Hollywood transition. The once big-time star of television shows like “Bounty Law” and “F.B.I.” is stuck in a rut that only sees him playing villainous roles and dull guests spots. As he admits to himself: “I’m a has-been.”
Thankfully, Rick’s best friend and pretty boy stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is there to “help carry his load.” Cliff rides on Rick’s coattails and tries to keep himself from engaging in reckless behavior. Between aiding Rick on all these odd tasks (fixing his TV antenna and driving him from job to job), Cliff is there to help Rick rediscover his self-worth. It’s a tender friendship that functions as the driving force and heart of this story.
In classic Tarantino structure, the story is split up into chapters, each of which takes place on a different day in 1969 Hollywood. We meet these gents as they are forced to contemplate going to Rome to star in an Italian Western — something Rick says is a job for people who want to be forgotten. Rick is a 40-something who lives a lifestyle of a man who is spry and in his 20s, but now those late nights alone of him floating around in his swimming pool hungover are catching up. He’s failing to remember his lines on whatever set he’s guest starring on that week, and it keeps him from advancing in his career.
From there, it’s a journey for Rick to rise above his insecurities, while Cliff tries to make something of himself as well. Along the way, we learn Rick lives next door to Valley of the Dolls actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), and they also might be having run-ins with the Manson family. (We know what they did, but the characters don’t.)
There’s a lot to unpack with this nearly three-hour film. While it seems like so little happens, so much exists between the lines. Compared to other Tarantino works that tend to stitch together extended talking sequences, Once Upon a Time dials it back. A good portion of the runtime is devoted to characters driving around town, listening to the Mamas and the Papas and Neil Diamond. Robert Richardson’s lucid cinematography pulls at our nostalgic hearts as his camera sweeps down Sunset Boulevard to highlight images of classic signage and theater marquees. Tarantino wants you to feel like you’re living in the time period. It feels authentic enough that I wouldn’t put it past Tarantino if he owned a flux capacitor and gunned it to ‘69.
So, it has all the accoutrement to envelope the audience into the period — however, the quiet scenes (where we follow the actors around Hollywood) enhance the experience. One of the key scenes involves Sharon Tate taking a day trip to visit a local theater. She decides to watch one of the films she starred in (The Wrecking Crew), to see how audiences react to her performance. It’s a seemingly insignificant moment, but it taps into the glow and grace of Sharon Tate’s being. Most people, of course, know her for being a victim of the Manson murders, but Tarantino gives her back the spotlight in a positive manner. Robbie manages to shine through even without much dialogue — a character direction that Tarantino was criticized for after the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Sure, there’s a moment where Sharon Tate picks up a hitchhiker that probably would have made for a fun conversation; however, her presence still feels large and creates impact.
Another unique sequence has Cliff feeding his pet pit bull. We begin by seeing how far across town Cliff lives from Rick and how he makes the best with what he has. He watches a small tube TV on a foldout tray in his trailer outside a drive-in movie theater, and he spends five minutes preparing a kibble feast for his pooch. How Tarantino makes the most mundane moments of life interesting is a skill to be learned.
Amongst all the poetry is Tarantino’s classic wit. It could not be better illustrated than Rick returning to his trailer after a terrible day of production. He tosses furniture around and punishes himself for flubbing some lines — down to mocking his stuttering and threatening to kill himself if he doesn’t get it right. It’s like the comedy version of Marlon Brando’s self-pep talk from On the Waterfront. And anytime Pitt gets stoned like his other Tarantino character from True Romance, it’s a sight to behold.
With Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino crafts an elegant valentine for 1960s cinema and culture and soaks it in the bong water of Dazed and Confused for a splash of big-time fun. If Tarantino does end up making this his swan song — and I sure hope it’s not — it’s a fitting end to a legendary career.