Twenty minutes in, my brother whispered to me, “I don’t know if this is going to be a good movie, but it’s a beautifully curated movie.” He was dead on. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t just re-create the look of 1969 Hollywood, he does it in a manner that somehow straddles classic homage and the hazy recollection of a local. The town seems both wondrous and pedestrian. Never were neon lights for Taco Bell or the Musso and Frank Grill so compelling.
Tarantino places two movie stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) in the midst of this mesmerizing visual portrait, the former playing a fading “almost made it” leading man reduced to working for cameos during “pilot season” and the latter his loyal stuntman/gofer. And wouldn’t you know it, DiCaprio lives next to none other than Roman Polanksi and Sharon Tate, and hey, who was that scraggly hippie who skulked by the other day?
The film could have been cutesy or overly reverential, and when the likes of Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and Mama Cass make appearances, I’ll admit, I was apprehensive. But their scenes are both fun and important. They assist in Tarantino’s portrait of Tinseltown as a much larger Mayberry, where everyone knows each other just to say howdy, but a lot of those everyones are someone.
Enmeshed in the slow-building run-up to the tragedy seared in our national consciousness (I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I devoured Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter”, and somehow, those white cut-outs of the bodies on Cielo Drive were more horrifying than any actual murder photo) are the stories of DiCaprio, who has lost his swagger and is negotiating his way down; Pitt, a man with a notorious reputation necessarily affixed to the fading star; and Tate (Margot Robbie), the ingénue representing the audience, agog at the magic around her and so excited about her future she can barely contain herself. There is not a minute of their stories that isn’t engaging, and Tarantino leisurely walks them though the company town.
This is also Tarantino’s funniest film. His dialogue has always been crackling, but he has moved on from bravura speeches and cool pop culture references, instead writing much more measured and subtle, with real heartfelt exchanges (his last film, The Hateful Eight, was a quantum leap in his maturity as a writer). And while excess is Tarantino’s hallmark, and often his downfall, you may not believe me, but this picture is an exercise in restraint.
I would like to say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything or preview one of the more enjoyable movies I have seen in years. Go now.