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'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' is a fractured fairy tale

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
Leonardo DiCaprio (and backup dancers) in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." [Contributed by Andrew Cooper/Sony-Columbia Pictures via AP]

One of the nice things about getting older is that you become more like yourself. You stop caring what other people think of the choices you make, and you settle into the things that are the most YOU.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is one of the most Quentin Tarantino movie that ever QT-ed, an ambling summary of the tics and interests he’s displayed over his career.

There’s the Los Angeles worship that comes with being both a native and a god-tier movie nerd. There’s the shaggy-dog plotting, the genre references and the longer-than-needed scenes of, well, almost everything.

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There are the set pieces that are almost their own short films and the inability to write a non-cartoonish woman of any sort. There’s the lack of interest in a world outside of the story itself, the stellar soundtrack and fashion-influencing costuming.

But above all, “Hollywood” is about his adoration for every aspect of making movies, especially the way they shot them in the good old 1960s, when men were men, women were women and hippies might kill you or have sex with you — who can know with these crazy kids?

If there is one thing you come away from “Hollywood” thinking, it’s that there is nothing Tarantino doesn’t love about film itself.

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Shot on 35mm, “Hollywood” delights not just in the grain and texture and physicality of old-school celluloid but also in the culture of the Hollywood process — the overly slick producers, the panicked actors. Mind you, this is not a documentary; it’s a Tarantino film, so it’s a cartoon for adults (in age, not necessarily maturity).

Scene to scene, moment to moment, it’s captivating and fun and incredible to listen to. Taken in toto, it’s as dumb and insular as any movie you will see this year. Again, peak Tarantino.

It's 1969 in Los Angeles, and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor whose so-called career might be entering its final stage.

His most recognizable part is the lead in a popular TV Western, now canceled. He is a name, but not a big one. He had a good run, but not a deathless one.

And as a producer played by Al Pacino says, Dalton is at the point where he is being cast as the guest-starring heavy in shows where the new, hot leading man can beat him up, which is a big signal that Dalton is done — unless he decides to make spaghetti Westerns in Italy.

Dalton’s best friend is his stunt double, driver and go-fer, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Pitt is a little older and much cooler. He needs the money, so he hangs around Dalton, not really a servant but a one-man posse (imagine if the idiots in “Entourage” were one older friend who was actually helpful and cool). He also might have killed his wife (an idea that is introduced, then expanded upon for about a minute, then never pays off), which has gotten him blackballed from the industry. Look for a bevy of cameos, from Bruce Dern to Lena Dunham to Damian Lewis (as Steve McQueen!).

They are the Hollywood upper-middle and lower class — Dalton in a nice house on Cielo Drive right next to that just-arrived couple Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski, Pitt with an enormous dog in a crappy trailer behind a drive-in. They know where they are in the Hollywood ecosystem, and they are basically fine with it.

Per a peak-Tarantino movie, “Hollywood” provides not so much plot as incidents and set pieces. Dalton cries sad tears at his career and happy tears at the quality of his acting after being complimented by a child. Tate watches herself in a movie. Booth ends up in a fight with Bruce Lee. He also gives a lift to a hippie gal (Margaret Qualley) he keeps running into and ends up at Spahn Ranch, meeting all these weird hippies. Be warned: Tarantino is in absolutely no rush. This thing ambles, and if you are the sort who enjoys his kind of amble, he is here to build a total world for you. If not ... it's a long movie. (That said, one can easily imagine there being a four-hour version of this thing sitting on Tarantino's computer.)

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If Elmore Leonard was an early Tarantino influence, "Hollywood" feels in many ways like a funnier James Ellroy, another Los Angeles-worshipping native prone to rambling, expansive noirs who adores mixing real 20th-century figures with fictional protagonists.

Much has been or will be made over the ahistorical ending, wherein the little men of Hollywood — the stuntmen and the mid-level talents — come to the rescue of the kings and queens and prevent the rampage of modernity, the creepy-crawl chaos of the young outsiders assaulting the old pros. Not for nothing, the title of this story is also the way you start fairy tales, as crucial an element of most of Tarantino's oeuvre as any other genre he's plundered.

'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

Grade: B-

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R for language throughout, drug use, sexual references and some strong graphic violence

Running time: 2 hour, 41 minutes

Theaters: AFS Cinema, Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Ritz, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South Lamar, Alamo Village, Arbor, Barton Creek, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Pflugerville 20, Sky Dripping, Southpark, Stone Hill, Violet Crown, Westgate. 35 mm: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Ritz, Alamo South Lamar, Alamo Village