Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s wistful midlife crisis movie

The first hint that Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood is a more wistful film than it may appear is in its title. Starting with the magic words that mark the opening of a fairy tale, followed by the bridge of a pensive ellipsis, the title evokes the empty, bone-deep ache that underlies all nostalgia, a longing for a half-remembered moment in time that may never have really existed at all. If any contemporary film director’s work stands up to such a granular reading, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s; in this film, as in all his others, he breaks down a place and time—in this case, Hollywood, 1969— and rebuilds it in his own movie-obsessed image, each deliberately placed poster and casually dropped reference one piece of a cryptic puzzle. Here, however, the writer-director’s own yearnings and anxieties are closer to the surface than usual.

This is Tarantino’s most personal film in decades, and the longings expressed in it flow from who he is as a person: an established middle-aged white guy confronting his own impending irrelevance. That exact prospect eats away at the film’s protagonist, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading Western TV star whose diminishing celebrity has forced him to contemplate the unthinkable for an actor of his caliber: going to Rome to star in “Eye-talian” Westerns. Rick still lives the lifestyle of a man in his 20s, but now those blotto nights alone in his Hollywood bachelor pad leave him hungover, melancholy, and unable to remember his lines on the set of whatever B-grade TV show he’s guest starring on that week.

Rick’s most lasting relationship has been with his stuntman/driver/chief enabler, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose reckless driving betrays a dangerous violent streak underneath his bright Hawaiian shirts and cocky comebacks. Rick and Cliff are openly contemptuous of hippies—DiCaprio, puffy and red-faced, screams at a car full of them wearing a half-open bathrobe and clutching a pitcher of margaritas at one point—and of Mexican people. Their conservative crankiness is a clear reflection of their insecurity about their place in a rapidly changing film industry (and world); it’s an unflattering aspect of their personalities that’s reflected in DiCaprio’s vulnerable, admirably pathetic performance as the past-his-prime Rick.

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