An officially recognized sub-genre, defined by the Watching Staff at the New York Times as “character-driven films [that] are all talk and no action,” the “hangout movie” is a grand cinematic tradition— representing such classics as Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Richard Linklater’s immortal “Dazed and Confused” and just about every independent film ever made.
“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” isn’t quite like those movies though it shares a ton of hangout movie DNA. It’s the kind of hangout movie that can only come from the mind of Quentin Tarantino. Kaleidoscopic. Cinematic. Violent. Rock ‘n roll.
While not his best film (that title still belongs to “Pulp Fiction”), it is one of his calmest, most humane, and most fun— a hang out movie supreme.
The plot, such as it is, is minimal. Aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, at his internalizing pretty boy best) tries to salvage his flagging career in Hollywood, 1969 alongside his stuntman, de facto assistant and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, in yet another potentially iconic role). But mostly they just hang out.
Meanwhile, the actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, stellar as always playing an idealized version of the real Tate) goes about her life — watching one of her own movies in a theater, shopping, partying at the Playboy mansion. Just kinda hanging out.
Rick’s looming Hollywood obsolescence, rumors about Cliff’s past and the Manson family are threats that lurk in the background.
Not since Martin Scorsese’s Casino has such a long movie felt so short — somehow this feels truncated, even at two hours and 40 minutes. Scenes of the various characters driving around are exhilarating somehow. The period-accurate details of the Hollywood ‘69 setting make looking out the window of the characters’ cars are lush enough to get drunk on. Even the radio the characters listen to plays real broadcasts from the time period.
The film covers three significant days and nights in the characters’ lives and the stakes inch ever upward as it builds toward the typically bombastic Tarant-onian climax. Will Rick Dalton ascend into movie heaven? Or will he be another washed up actor, hungover, cursing himself in an undersized trailer on the set of yet another TV Western?
As the movie posits, in Hollywood, it can easily go either way. In 1969, the hanging out was very much interrupted by actual events.
I can assure you, however, that Rick Dalton will yell at hippies while wearing a robe and drinking frozen margaritas straight from the blender. That for sure happens for your cinematic pleasure.
And this movie is pure cinematic pleasure — a fun, funny, mysterious and violent piece of Gen-X movie making about movie making that is a treat for the eyes and the mind. Tarantino takes his time telling the story, building the world the story inhabits and letting scenes breathe. It’s also a melancholic tribute to the Hollywood of days gone by. A reflection on the power of luck in the business of the town and reminder that a lucky break, good or bad, often has the power to change everything.