He’s at it again.
Quentin Tarantino, the man who killed Hitler in “Inglourious Basterds,” has once again fed history into, let’s call it the transmogrifying machine, with his take on the Manson family killings in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
What we have here is the past, reinvented wholesale, in what amounts to a phantasmagoria of the late 1960s.
With its superstar pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in the lead roles, “Once Upon a Time” takes the audience on a pop-culture-soaked ride through 1969 Los Angeles. Movie marquees are ever-present in the background, bannering the titles of the day, and movie posters adorn almost every visible wall. Tarantino’s movie-geek proclivities thus turn the set design into a main character.
Period rock hits are churning nonstop out of car radios, and TVs are always on, tuned to popular series of the likes of “Mannix” and “The FBI” and “Bounty Law” and … wait. What? Never heard of that last one.
That’s a black-and-white Western, sort of like “The Rifleman,” starring a guy named Rick Dalton. That’s the DiCaprio character, once hot, now cooling in the fame department. He’s relegated these days to playing heavies, and that reduces him to tears.
“It’s official, old buddy, I’m a has-been,” he blubbers to his best friend, Cliff Booth, his longtime stunt double played by Pitt.
Rick’s prodigious alcohol intake has cost him his driver’s license, so now Cliff has to chauffeur him around and do handyman work at his house and generally be his sole source of emotional support. Their careers are going in reverse.
On the upward trajectory is their next-door-neighbor starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Fame has found her and so has director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), her new husband. Robbie’s work as Tate is one of the strengths of the movie. She plays her as a gentle innocent joyfully accepting her good fortune.
Then one day Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) stops by the house, looking for someone who no longer lives there. And all the pieces are now in place.
Manson is barely in the movie. It’s his female followers who dominate the sections that focus on the cult. In one section, Cliff picks up a hitchhiking girl and drives her to the dilapidated Spahn Movie Ranch, where she lives with the rest of Manson’s creepy cult. There they assemble like zombies out of “Night of the Living Dead,” giving off a menacing vibe that foreshadows the slaughter of Tate and the other Manson victims.
The pacing of the picture is problematical. It’s curiously inert in the early going, with a lot of time spent in cars with the characters as they drive around and around on freeways, side streets and boulevards in Hollywood.
Pitt is relaxed in his performance, though he has a great scene where Cliff hurls a boastful and vainglorious Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) into a car door during an impromptu backlot fight. That’s one of the more minor reinventions in the screenplay.
At times it seems like DiCaprio is working at half speed, but every now and then he kicks his performance into high gear. His best work comes during a section where he plays a Western bad guy with such malevolent intensity that you wish Tarantino had made that movie-within-the-movie instead of the one that contains the scene.
Tarantino allows too many scenes to drag on far too long, particularly one in which Tate spends a lot of time in a theater cheerily watching her performance in a Dean Martin action picture, “The Wrecking Crew.”
Tarantino indulges his inner movie geek too much in that and other moments. The references to other movies contribute to the excessive 161-minute running time.
The most surprising thing about “Once Upon a Time” is, despite the Tarantino-style carnage that erupts at the end, it somehow threads its way to a conclusion that is unexpectedly sweet. History is what Tarantino makes it in this movie.
★★½ “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 161 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use and sexual references. Opens July 26 at multiple theaters.