Like many others, I went searching for the shards of my youth in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood."
I wasn't alone: "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood" generated a national box office of $40 million, Tarantino's best opening weekend ever. Only Disney's recycled"The Lion King" did better.
Tarantino packs a barrage of cultural and historical references in his flashback to 1969 Los Angeles. Old TV and movie Westerns. Hopalong Cassidy coffee mugs and childhood lunch boxes. Kid Colt comics. Sharon Tate. Charles Manson. Steve McQueen. Roman Polanksi. James Farentino. White miniskirts and go-go boots. Dean Martin as Matt Helm.
The film also evokes a film released in 1969 a month before Sharon Tate and several house guests were murdered in Tate and Polanski's Los Angeles home by members of the Manson cult.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider," which made Jack Nicholson a star, opened in July 1969, presenting a brutal vision of violence against a benevolent hippie culture.
In contrast, Tarantino in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" views hippie culture as malign. Echoing vintage Clint Eastwood movies, the film justifies violence against the counterculture.
But Tarantino's movie also shares "Easy Rider's" spirit of disappearing freedom. His main characters, like the questing motorcycle knights payed by Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson, embark upon a quest for the lost American dream.
Leonardo DiCaprio as a fading TV western star and Brad Pitt as his hard-luck body double represent the end of the cowboy lifestyle. Once the star of a popular TV Western similar to McQueen's "Wanted, Dead or Alive," DiCaprio's Rick Dalton scrounges for guest roles playing the villain in TV Westerns, reaching the end of their heyday.
Pitt's Cliff Booth is the classic movie anti-hero, following his own code of honor while violating the norms of society.Pitt turns into the true western hero that Dalton can only portray on TV. In the end, Dalton revives himself through acts of violence. The movie exults in the irony that two of Hollywood's last box office attractions play characters on the movie industry's margins.
The film touches upon other themes: the end of the American frontier, the art of acting, the resonance of popular music. As in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels and countless other books, movies and TV shows, Los Angeles' vintage restaurants, freeways and architectural oddities are like temples of a pagan god.
Margot Robbie gives a memorable portrait of a sensuous, childlike Sharon Tate. Tarantino has been criticized for not giving her enough lines of dialogue, but he is a master of film as a visual medium. Robbie expresses her character fully through gestures, facial expressions and changes in her walk. Her relatively few lines of speech carry weight.
The film's montage of disjointed vignettes sink into incoherence after the thrilling start, but Tarantino keeps putting his magic bus back on the highway. The controversial ending's excessive violence doesn't overcome a shortfall of suspense.
Not matching the promise of its opening, the film is a valiant near miss. Tarantino succeeds in giving old movie fans a glimpse of the provocative, edgy, imaginative movies made Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.