Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature film, the pleasantly chaotic Licorice Pizza, looks like the most autobiographical film the 51-year-old writer-director has made to date, even though the script was based on someone else’s memories: namely, those of the child actor turned successful producer Gary Goetzman, whose stories Anderson heard while they both worked for the late Maestro Jonathan Demme.
Like Goetzman, Anderson grew up in Southern California, his high school years coming about a decade after the early ’70s when this movie is set. And like Licorice PizzaGary’s teenage hero (Cooper Hoffman) Anderson also grew up on the fringes of the entertainment industry. Her father, who died in 1997, was a voiceover presenter on ABC and the former host of a local programming block of late-night horror films, the kind of cheerful, joker character who appears time and time again in her son’s work in California. . No one loves a little wheel merchant more than Paul Thomas Anderson, and Gary’s last name is “Valentine” for a reason: the man behind the camera clearly loves this bold and confident boy, not least because the The actor playing him is the 18-year-old son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a longtime collaborator and close friend of Anderson.
The other half of the couple May / end of June in the heart of Licorice Pizza (she is 25 to 15 years old) is Alana Kane, singer Alana Haim’s fictional alter ego. From the moment Alana first appears, resplendent in a miniskirt and wedge sandals, in the walkway of Gary’s High School in San Fernando Valley, she exudes a winning mix of arrogant bravado and wacky vulnerability. Alana, who works as an assistant to a portrait photographer at the school, is quick-witted, sardonic and ambitious without quite knowing what she wants to be. To Gary, instantly enamored, and to the public, she looks like a movie star in the making.
Though she pokes fun at her clumsy attempts at flirting, the two quickly form a thorny competitive bond that sits somewhere between friendship and business partnership. When Gary, an actor working part-time with a busy single mom, needs an adult chaperone to make his way to a commercial appearance in New York City, he convinces Alana to accompany him as a “tutor.” They later try unsuccessfully to launch her into her own acting career, with Gary as an enthusiastic but unsuspecting coach. When that idea goes south, they team up with some of Gary’s classmates to start a business selling and delivering Los Angeles’ latest shady sophistication: waterbeds. That business in turn gives way to a teenage pinball parlor called Fat Bernie’s, which Gary chairs with the expansive bonhomie of a Vegas casino owner.
It’s in this wacky mid-section, when a series of prominent movie stars appear in extended cameos as other barely disguised prominent movie stars, that the film takes off. A series of vignettes reveal a shadowy Los Angeles coexisting with the sunny suburban world of Alana and Gary. At Tail o ‘the Cock, the Studio City steakhouse that Gary considers his personal social club, they meet an actor a la William Holden, a liquor drinker named Jack Holden (Sean Penn), whose attempt to get Alana back. derailed by his own thrill-seeking madness. While delivering a waterbed to a posh address, they meet Jon Peters (a hilariously hired Bradley Cooper), the real-life celebrity hairstylist and legendary womanizer who is said to have been the inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo. The comedic chase that ensues when they run up against this paranoid, coked-up horndog is as close as the film reaches true suspense.
Licorice PizzaThe structure of is shaggy and organic. While the dialogue is too loaded with well-placed zingers to have been improvised on set, it feels like the story is bubbling straight from the brain of its creator, the freewheeling camera work (by Anderson and Michael Bauman) expressing his ideas as directly as a pen on paper. The soundtrack is a mix of period-appropriate needle drops (David Bowie, Suzie Quatro, Paul McCartney and Wings) and a scintillating score by Jonny Greenwood. The image, shot on 35mm film, is also somehow appropriate for the times, all lens reflections and tracking shots smooth, with a propulsive forward motion that mimics energy. unlimited and always uncontained of the young characters.
For all its seedy romanticism, Licorice Pizzahis vision is not without political and social complications.
Anderson’s work has always been indebted to the great cinematic poet of Southern California hippie culture, Robert Altman. The sprawling, swirling world that surrounds Alana and Gary as they wander the valley making sometimes regrettable choices is, in particular, reminiscent of Altman’s early 1970s prismatic LA. The long goodbye, a place full of larger-than-life characters and enigmatic encounters. But despite all its seedy romanticism, Licorice PizzaThe vision of life as a key child in the Nixon administration is not without political and social complications. The energy crisis and resulting gasoline shortages play a recurring role in the story, in addition to providing a backdrop for a thrilling run through a line of stopped cars. Towards the end of the film, Alana begins working for a young progressive mayoral candidate, Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), whose private life offers a tragic glimpse into a late 20’s feature film.e-th century life decidedly not worthy of nostalgia.
Not all grounding attempts Licorice Pizza in a denostalgic past is bearing fruit. A running gag about a white restaurant owner with a series of interchangeable Japanese brides seems like a joke about the character’s racism, but the joke lands without grace. And the question of whether Alana and Gary’s quasi-romance violates the age of consent limits is never raised, even though her family (played by Haim’s real family, including her siblings) turns out to be traditional and very united. Granted, the film takes place at a time and place where a high school student wooing a peer in his twenties probably wouldn’t have been the scandal it would be today, but Anderson, whose eldest was just about l Gary’s character age, however, might have included at least one character who objected to the age gap. The only person on screen who questions him is Alana herself, who ponders her sister whether it’s “weird” that she is hanging out with Gary and her 15-year-old friends and concludes, with a certain self-mockery, that it is.
Licorice Pizza, whose name comes from a chain of record stores SoCal that never appears in history, is less a film than a mood, a series of linked atmospheres. A cranky man might say that the film’s momentum slows down in the second half, and its two-hour and 13-minute runtime could have been slashed by 20 minutes. But thanks in large part to its fresh-faced stars, the charming Hoffman and the insanely charismatic Haim, I find it hard to think of a recent movie that I wish I had stayed in the world for longer.