A fanciful memory movie about Tarantino’s childhood L.A., but without a stand-in for QT, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” instead follows an aging, insecure alcoholic actor and his cool, stoic stunt-double buddy interacting with various real-life Hollywood figures, members of the Manson family and Sharon Tate over three days in 1969 clocking in at a sprawling, consistently entertaining 160 minutes. This dream of a movie, a triumph of directing and design and a monumental piece of Gen X pop art, has a script that’s both a deeply felt work of revisionist historical fiction (like “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained”) and a daring, funny and profane piece of screenwriting from one of our last mainstream auteurs: a rollicking period-drenched lovefest, a fetishistic epic with what seems like a hundred speaking parts, digressive and novelistic. Tarantino has always reinvented the screenplay as novel and he’s as concerned with world-building and mood and atmosphere and character as he is with story and narrative and structure, and he’s able to juggle satire and nostalgia, spectacle and intimate expert set pieces, funny gags and tender drama, as well as pitch-black knockabout farce, effortlessly. It can border on the pleasingly cartoonish with its Mad magazine outrageousness, but what Tarantino locates within the broader strokes is the humanity of his characters — this is his warmest and most heartfelt movie to date. In the end Tarantino supplies his film with an eerie, touching quality — the last scene has the plaintive simplicity of a fairy tale. For some it operates as a bemused commentary on white male mid-life anxiety circa 2019, but it’s really Tarantino’s “Day for Night,” his “Amarcord,” infused with a longing about a world, a faraway Hollywood, that’s extinct and never coming back.
Bret Easton Ellis is a novelist and screenwriter.