‘Hollywood’ breaks from Tarantino mold but still a good watch

Quentin Tarantino’s three best strengths as a writer/director are storytelling, depictions of violence and his deft use of dialogue. With “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood,” his storytelling is as good as ever.

The film takes place in 1969 and centers on aging TV star Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio in a career performance) and his stunt double/friend/chauffeur Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, relishing every moment). Also thrown into the mix are Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the Manson clan.

Along the way, we get brief vignettes with the likes of Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen and Charles Manson. Our three main performers are often separated from each other, leading to long periods without seeing two of them. Thankfully, Tarantino weaves the stories together enough so that they cross and eventually blend in one of his classic climaxes.

The most important character may be Hollywood itself. Beautifully recreated right down to the marquees and street signs, the city is alive with the color and vibrancy of a bygone era.

Violence is at the center of every one of Tarantino’s eight previous directorial efforts, and he frequently uses robberies, heists and revenge as themes. His latest film, however, finds him waxing nostalgic for simpler, easier times.

His characters mostly emulate that feeling onscreen. Rick longs for the days when he was the star of a TV western, instead of guest starring as a villain in random shows. Cliff hangs on Rick’s hip pocket in case he finally gets full-time stunt work again. Only Sharon has more ahead of her than behind. She spends her time living it up at Roman Polanski’s house and going to theaters incognito to watch herself onscreen.

Tarantino restrains himself by subduing the violence in the shows and films in which his characters act. Eventually, you forget you’re watching a Tarantino movie … until the bloody end to the third act. It’s almost shocking when it comes; its brutal nature made me laugh several times in nervous release.

Tarantino’s best dialogue sequences are when the conversations have nothing to do with the main plot. They might talk about food (“Pulp Fiction”) or how much to tip a waitress (“Reservoir Dogs”). In the hands of any other director, these scenes would be pure filler. But with a master like Tarantino, they become film class material.

Imagine my dismay that such scenes were noticeably absent in “Once Upon a Time.” Granted, there were several great sequences of dialogue – 9-year-old Julia Butters is every bit DiCaprio’s equal in their scenes together – yet all of the lengthy conversations are part of the plot.

I wasn’t asking for anything on par with Jules and Verne from “Pulp Fiction.” Perhaps Tarantino felt the benign subject matter of his latest story did not warrant any breaks from the plot.

It’s not his best film, but “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” proves that a master can step away from the themes on which he usually relies and still tell a fantastic story. B+

Jeff Mellinger is a screen writer and film buff. He holds a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in film production. He lives in Concord. Email comments to editor@pioneerpublishers.com.