Film Review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’

by Koom Kankesan


Licorice Pizza, P. T. Anderson‘s new film about the ups and downs in a romantic friendship between a charismatic teenaged boy and an angry twenty-something woman in early seventies California, is wonderfully acted and assembled. Boasting the auteur’s signature cinematic power, the film mesmerizes the viewer into watching oddball episode after episode as the protagonists bounce off each other. Well worth the watch!

Licorice Pizza, the new offering by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a smaller intimate film although it still bears the director’s signature momentousness in its style and tone. Set in the early to mid seventies, the film chronicles the ups and downs of a relationship in the offing between fifteen year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twenty-five year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). When we first meet them, Alana is working for a photographer taking school photos at Gary’s high school, and Gary asks her out. According to Alana, Gary is no more than a teenage pest but she ends up showing up to the bar mentioned in his invitation and they become friends, business partners, and unrequited love interests over the next few years as Gary moves from child actor to waterbed salesman, then pinball arcade impresario. Sometimes Alana joins him in these ventures and sometimes she strikes out for herself as she tries to find herself and shore up romance that is more appropriate for her age and situation.

Upon seeing the film’s trailer, it’s not obvious that the characters are so apart in age. Even at the beginning of the film, it isn’t clear that Alana is an adult employee at the school – we have become so accustomed to seeing young adults play high schoolers that it takes a while for the brain to process that these two actors are playing people in different phases. Anderson is so good at weaving a spell with his filmmaking and these two actors have such excellent chemistry that the viewer will often forget about the age difference or not believe it, even though it is perhaps the major stumbling block in their relationship. The ethics of the relationship, the difference in age, the sheer oddness of it is only touched upon fleetingly in the movie. At one point, while sharing a joint, Alana asks her sister whether it’s weird that she spends so much time with Gary and his friends. Her sister, between tokes, replies that it is whatever Alana thinks of it as. Perhaps we can chalk this up to the edgy relativistic ethos exhibited in oddball romances from that period like Minnie and Moscovitz or Harold and Maude.

Other characterizations in the film also hearken to this strange, sweet, sexist seventies ethos including a date with an ageing Steve McQueen type actor played by Sean Penn and an encounter with a testosterone riddled Jon Peters played by Bradley Cooper. Jon Peters is an actual Hollywood producer and Anderson apparently got his permission to write him into the film. Cooper portrays him in turns both hilarious and horrifying; there is such a loathing induced by the character despite his short time on the screen that it’s quite remarkable. In the trailer and the film’s actual closing credits, there is a clip of Cooper as Peters shattering car windows but that bit has actually been cut out of the final film. Though this is not a send-up of a previous time like Anderson’s Inherent Vice or more of an immersion like Boogie Nights, it is quite funny. And I haven’t even said anything about the collection of period era songs on the soundtrack. Along with viewing the visual splendour of this 70mm film in a theatre, being able to listen to its soundtrack on a theatre sound system is nothing less than incredible.

Much of the film comprises of small moments made large by Anderson’s adept filmmaking. He has an uncanny knack for shooting and building a scene that registers human reactions and moments that are absolutely immersive. I’ve tried to figure out whether it’s signature framings or camera movements or editing that does this but it’s no one thing. He seems to have a very powerful ability to immerse his actors and audiences into a wondrous, live emotional space that serves him scene after scene even if the story itself isn’t going anywhere particularly conclusive. It’s all about character and scene, not story. If I have a complaint about the film at all, it’s that I wanted more from it – I wanted another act or something that defined their relationship as opposed to just this wistful, momentary thing.

That being said, the wistfulness, although it eschews ethical concerns, is quite wonderful. Some historical aspects are touched upon like the gas crisis and Joel Wachs‘ mayoral campaign but these things barely intrude into the contour of Gary and Alana’s friendship/relationship. Instead, they provide the basis for irony, humour, and some very unforgettable sequences such as one where Alana must back a large truck down a hill after they’ve run out of gas, trying her best not to crash into anything along the way. That’s what the gas crisis episode culminates in after we see Jon Peters threaten to blow up a gas station because he doesn’t want to wait in line due to the scarcity of fuel.

At first, I thought this film must have been made primarily out of nostalgia for Anderson’s teen years but if the Wikipedia entry on him is correct, Anderson was born in 1970 and would have barely remembered the early seventies if at all. Perhaps it’s a nostalgia for films of the seventies that seem a clear influence on Anderson’s emotional aesthetic. Or perhaps it’s simply a chance to make a more personal, less formal project after the finality and grandeur of Phantom Thread. Anderson’s wife Maya Rudolph has a cameo and their kids play some of the minor parts in the movie. Alana’s family is portrayed by the actress’ real life parents and sisters. Most importantly, Cooper Hoffman is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son and the elder Hoffman acted in many of Anderson’s previous films before his death. Seeing Cooper Hoffman, who is still a teen, act is a revelation – I never really believed that acting ability could be passed on genetically but I might be willing to change my mind now. Seeing what Cooper Hoffman brings to the table reaffirms my faith in continuity after the disappointment of seeing James Gandolfini’s son’s performance in the Sopranos sequel back in the fall. I’d be very happy to see him and Anderson continue to work together in the future.

Actor Cooper Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’

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