Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about as charming as a Manson movie will ever get

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is charming. That’s not a description you expect to see for a Tarantino movie. Well, you also don’t expect corny scenes with precocious little girls and gratuitous shots of cute dogs. For a while, Once feels like it comes from an alternate timeline where QT wasn’t spooked by the reception to Jackie Brown and just kept on making mellow hangout movies where characters expressed themselves in non-blood-splattering ways.

For a while.

Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) holds forth.

In any case, Once is something different. It’s all the things that the buzz suggests: it’s a love letter to a place and era and style, it’s a revisionist fairy tale, it’s a rumination on a historical moment and pop culture and movie violence and Hollywood dreams. It’s gleefully gory and astoundingly pointless. But to varying degrees, that’s all typical Tarantino. This one’s different because under it all, it’s a cheerful little underdog melodrama. 

So it’s 1969. We’re introduced to fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick’s on the way down, a TV star reduced to playing walk-on heavies, and Cliff’s coming with him. Next door, Rick’s new neighbours are man of the moment Roman Polanski and rising star Sharon Tate. One pool party could change his whole career, Rick points out. But anyone who’s seen a cheapie drama knows he’ll have to change himself before he can change his fortunes.

One of Rick Dalton’s (DiCaprio) many guest spots.

Of course, Once is to the melodrama what Django is to the revenge Western—a simple genre flick blanketed in endless layers of cinematic in-jokes, mischievous digressions, random provocations, and lots and lots of cool. If you’re in the mood to get on Tarantino’s nostalgic wavelength, it’s a hazy, funky good time. Tarantino imagines a 1969 that’s as inundated with pop culture as we are now, a non-stop barrage of TV shows and radio ads and poster-blanketed surfaces. It’s a dream that’s worth losing yourself in.

A melancholic dread builds as we see more and more of the long-haired freaks that hang around Los Angeles. We know who they are and we know what’s coming. (And the movie’s suspense sequences are magnificent.) It’s a movie about the end of an era by a filmmaker who wants to pretend that end never came. Well, they don’t make ‘em like they used to, but a good chunk of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gets close. And the rest…well, I’ll tell you what: not everyone’s gonna love this movie, but no one’s gonna accuse it of not going for broke.