Tarantino Goes Mainstream (Almost)

Quentin Tarantino is, like it or not, the most influential American film director of the past 25 years. He first made his mark with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), which mixed hip criminals with graphic violence and torrents of profanity, a formula that proved particularly popular with adolescent and college-aged males. For a moviegoing public that was beginning to tire of Rocky sequels and Jim Henson-puppet features about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tarantino brought something undeniably exciting and new. 

Tarantino’s large fan base all but guarantees the profitability of any film bearing his name. For these enthusiasts, a new picture by the great “QT” is a major event, a chance to relish once more the quirky features long associated with the brand, including a retro soundtrack, lots of blood, a non-linear storyline, and repeated references, both subtle and obvious, to movies from the past. These fans have no patience for critics who contend that Tarantino’s movies offer more style than substance and, like the cheaply made “grindhouse” movies of yore (his favorites), are designed mainly to assault conventional tastes. Just look at his Inglorious Basterds (2009), say these detractors: a World War II film that begins in an atmosphere of high suspense, but then lapses into a bizarre revenge fantasy with farcical overtones more reminiscent of Hogan’s Heroes than The Guns of Navarone.

But even these critics are likely to admit that Tarantino’s movies are often visually stunning, even when, as in Kill Bill (2003), the plot becomes a thin pretext to string together a series of gruesome, elaborately staged fight scenes. And Tarantino casts well, as revealed in Jackie Brown, his deft 1997 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch. In Jackie Brown, Tarantino draws memorable performances not only from its biggest names (Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro), but from Pam Grier in the title role. Thanks to Tarantino, Grier revived a career that had been sinking since the 1970s, when she starred in such “blaxploitation” films as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Jackie Brown also features an Oscar-nominated performance by Robert Forster, another successful actor from the 1970s who had in the interim been reduced to bit parts in low-budget, direct-to-video thrillers bearing titles like Satan’s Princess and Maniac Cop III.

Tarantino must have had careers like Grier’s and Forster’s in mind when he scripted his new, and perhaps most engaging, film. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in 1969, as the movie industry scrambles to adjust to rapidly shifting audience expectations and tastes. Its main character, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is also a television star whose career has hit the skids. Back in the 1950s, Dalton starred in Bounty Hunter, a weekly black and white Western not unlike Wanted Dead or Alive starring Steve McQueen. Dalton, though, can’t match McQueen’s ensuing success as a leading man in feature films, and instead takes guest roles on The FBI and similar television dramas, generally playing bad guys. 

Dalton’s agent, Marvin Schwars (Al Pacino), wants him to accept the lead in a “Spaghetti Western” soon to be filmed in Italy. But Dalton balks. He’s more intrigued by news that the famous director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved into the Benedict Canyon house next to his. Dalton hopes this neighborly connection will land him a role in one of Polanski’s forthcoming pictures.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s stuntman, driver, drinking buddy, and errand-runner, is the one who cheers the actor up whenever he descends into a boozy, self-pitying funk. Resilient and upbeat, Cliff lives with his devoted pit bull in a trailer on the outskirts of town. He’s the sort of relaxed but adventurous guy who speeds around in a Karmann Ghia convertible, its radio blasting the Top 40 hits of the day. Cliff is partly based, apparently, on Hal Needham, the legendarily daring Hollywood stuntman who became a director of car-chase movies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1981), movies that Tarentino surely knows well.

But then, Tarantino is reputed to have seen nearly every picture ever made. He grew up in Los Angeles, and was a movie fanatic from a young age. A high school dropout, he clerked for several years in a well-stocked video store. In his early twenties, Tarantino made his first, self-funded movie, guided mainly by the techniques he gleaned from the endless films and videos he avidly consumed. The director has called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a “memory film,” and a kind of “love letter” to the Los Angeles of his youth. 

In one sequence, we see a likable and charming Sharon Tate attending a matinee at the Bruin Theater in Westwood, one of Tarantino’s old haunts. Delightedly, she watches herself in The Wrecking Crew, the spy spoof starring Dean Martin that came out in 1968. With Martin’s screen career ending just as Tate’s is starting to unfold, it’s an effective moment—a tribute to Tate and an homage to the pleasures of going to the movie theater before the advent of streaming.

Tarantino clearly assumes viewers’ awareness that, in the real-life Los Angeles of 1969, Tate will soon be dead, murdered in her home with four others by deranged members of Charles Manson’s “family.” Tarantino, though, does not foreshadow the crimes of Manson and his clan in a predictably portentous way. There’s a very chilling episode when Cliff makes an unplanned stop at the cult’s weird encampment at a largely abandoned and desolate horse ranch. 

Ultimately, Manson’s handpicked assassins, clad in black and packing knives, do turn up in Rick Dalton’s neighborhood looking for blood. But for the most part Tarantino keeps Manson and his clan away from the movie’s main characters. These “dirty hippies,” as Cliff calls them, drift about on the margins, lending an undercurrent of menace to a sunny L.A. landscape that otherwise appears so laid-back and cheery, with its swaying palm trees and blinking neon signs, its not-yet-very smogged up air ringing with the tuneful advertising jingles and pop songs that blare from Angelinos’ car radios. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does turn violent, and in such an over-the-top way that one suspects Tarantino is simply sticking it to those who have condemned the carnage that appears regularly in his films. The director has often, and sometimes heatedly, dismissed these criticisms, noting that violence in various forms is intrinsic to the human experience and has always been a part of dramatic and narrative art; that, in any event, people are entirely capable of distinguishing between fictional and actual violence, just as a child knows precisely when he’s pretending and when he’s not. In Tarantino’s movies the violence has become increasingly fulsome and absurd, as if to underscore its artifice and theatricality.

Still, it’s clear that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is pitched to an audience that includes but goes beyond Tarantino’s base of hardcore fans. It’s chockablock with allusions to the consumer and entertainment products of the 1960s; its soundtrack includes cool old tunes by the likes of José Feliciano and Vanilla Fudge. But it’s largely free of profanity and brutality. It mercifully dispenses with the long, rambling dialogues that stoned Tarantino fans find witty and profound. And it doesn’t invite sympathy with unsavory characters. Instead it’s unambiguously on the side of the good guys, one of whom is a cowboy of sorts. It’s a well-acted, character-driven and, at times, rather thoughtful summer alternative to the current run of Hollywood’s stale and formulaic offerings.