By RAFER GUZMÁN
As a summer of so-so movies draws to a close, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” arrives to remind us what we’ve been missing. Remember when movies had style, star-power, an original vision, a sense of excitement? Tarantino, one of the last true cinephiles, certainly does. His latest release reaches into the past — 1969, to be exact — to pull some of that energy into the present.
The movie features two of today’s biggest stars playing minor celebrities. Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an actor trying to parlay his Western television series “Bounty Law” into a movie career. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Dalton’s longtime stunt-double and gofer. While Rick goes on auditions, Booth runs errands or does minor repairs on Dalton’s manse in the Hollywood Hills. Dalton’s neighbors are the recently wed director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and the actress Sharon Tate (a brief but enchanting Margot Robbie), who will soon cross paths with Charles Manson.
DiCaprio’s Dalton is a treat — a total ham but, as we intimate from his slight stammer, a dedicated one. The movie’s heart, however, belongs to Pitt’s weather-beaten Booth. Though a man of few words and even fewer ambitions, he’s the guy you’d want in a pinch; in one terrific scene, Booth gets into an on-set fistfight with Bruce Lee (played as a preening poser by Mike Moh). Pitt’s quiet, confident Cliff isn’t too far from his brusque lieutenant in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”
What do the fictional Rick and Cliff have to do with the very real Manson Family (played by Mikey Madsen, Austin Butler, Lena Dunham and many more)? The plot will bring them together — in spectacularly violent fashion — but Tarantino seems to be making a bigger connection: Just as the 1969 Altamont Speedway concert killed the hippie dream, so the Manson Family killed the glamour of Old Hollywood. It isn’t the most airtight theory, but it has a certain subconscious logic. More important, it gives Tarantino an excuse to fully exploit the year’s colorful clothes, cool cars and energetic pop music. (Truth be told, Tarantino often lets the production design and soundtrack do more talking than the screenplay.)
Historically accurate to the last detail — except when it totally isn’t — “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” may not be Tarantino’s best work, but it might be his most personal. Tarantino, who grew up in Los Angeles, has compared his film to Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” also inspired by a childhood time and place. With its grace notes of sorrow and glimmers of optimism, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is both an ode to a bygone era and a celebration of an art form that, in the right hands, can still be vibrant and thrilling.