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‘Licorice Pizza’ a nostalgic triumph from PTA

January 10, 2022
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There are a handful of filmmakers whose movies are what I would consider unmissable. These are the auteurs who bring unique and compelling visions to the screen, telling engaging stories with visual flair and structural panache. We all have our pantheons.

Paul Thomas Anderson is part of mine.

Now, I’m hardly alone in this. The PTA hive has been a robust one pretty much from the beginning – he’s been on the cinephile radar since the late ‘90s. I’d put his three-film fun of “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” against any filmmaker’s first three features … and he just continued to get better.

One of the many qualities of PTA’s work that I’ve always admired is his willingness to pivot, to veer in different directions with the choices that he makes and the stories he chooses to tell. So I was obviously thrilled when I (finally – everyone kept things very close to the vest) learned that his newest film, “Licorice Pizza,” would revisit the San Fernando Valley and focus on telling a coming of age story in early ‘70s California.

The film – named after a now-shuttered chain of record stores – is a story of affection and ambition, a tale of misguided attraction and relentless hustle. It’s a story about what it means to actually grow up when you already view yourself as grown up, as well as some of the consequences that this sort of up-and-down maturation process can have. All of it rendered through Anderson’s exquisite eye and brought forth by an absolutely dynamite cast – a cast led by a central odd couple of sorts offering up performances that far outstrip what we might have reasonably expected.

In 1973, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old living in the Valley. He’s an actor with a few solid credits, though he may be aging out. At his high school picture day, he crosses paths with a young woman named Alana Kane (Alana Haim) – a decade his senior – who is working as an assistant to the photographer. Gary, through charm, force of will and sheer stubbornness, convinces Alana to meet him for dinner one night.

And just like that, an unlikely friendship is forged.

From there, the relationship evolves in fits and starts. Alana serves as a chaperone for Gary when his mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) can’t accompany him to New York for a promotional appearance, but when Alana meets Gary’s co-star Lance (Skyler Gisondo) and starts dating him, Gary’s romantic aspirations turn toward jealousy. For her part, Alana keeps fending off Gary’s advances in that department, though they remain close – and Lance doesn’t last long.

Gary’s entrepreneurial hustle draws Alana in – he’s constantly coming up with money-making schemes to supplement his acting income, whether he’s selling waterbeds or opening an arcade or what have you. Alana, almost despite herself, spends more and more time with Gary and his buddies despite the age gap; she’s also dealing with an antagonistic situation at home with her family – played by her real-life parents and sisters, by the way – and struggling to find her own direction.

But as Gary and Alana careen around town, the connection between them deepens even as it gets more complicated, with both of them seeking solace in other places only to wind up coming back together.

And that’s pretty much it. There’s not a ton that actually happens in “Licorice Pizza” – there’s an endearing shagginess to it all, but this isn’t what you’d call a plot-heavy film. But really, that’s OK. A big part of what makes this movie work is vibe – we’re hanging out with these people and having a delightful time doing so.

Basically, this film revolves around the relationship at its core. In a way, it’s telling two different coming of age stories side by side, with both Gary and Alana confronting the realities of moving into the next stage of life. Gary is a kid desperate to be viewed as an adult, while Alana is trying to figure out what exactly being an adult even means. Neither is fully comfortable with the journey, and so they cling to one another, each allowing the other to push their respective concerns to the side.

It’s beautifully shot, of course – Anderson is a master of scenic composition, packing each moment with details both overt and subtle. He captures the general experience of the time in myriad ways; just for one example, he encapsulates the very specific nature of interaction – if you want to see someone, you have to call them, and if they don’t answer, you have to find them yourself (note: there’s a LOT of running in this movie). The young people of “Licorice Pizza” are both more and less independent than their modern-day counterparts, a truth that Anderson puts on full and effective display.

(Oh, and the music is awesome, as you might expect. All killer, no filler, as they say – check out Mike Dow’s “Sound Bites” column this week for his take on the soundtrack.)

As always, however, where PTA shines brightest is in his ability to both cast well and get the most out of those he casts. Obviously, Hoffman and Haim are at the center of the frame. Neither has a ton of experience as an actor, but that comes with a caveat: Alana is, of course, one of the three sisters that make up the rock band Haim, so she’s no stranger to performing, while Cooper is the son of the brilliant actor (and PTA muse) the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. That absence of experience is more feature than bug here, allowing room for a naturalism that greatly enhances the impact of their scenes together. There’s real chemistry here, too. Haim has a wonderful teasing energy that ebbs and flows as the circumstances dictate, while Hoffman has inherited his dad’s charisma (he looks enough like PSH for it to resonate, but not so much that it distracts).

Meanwhile, the supporting ensemble is actually packed with talented performers absolutely going for it – some playing real people, others playing adaptations. Bradley Cooper shows up as notorious Hollywood hustler Jon Peters, offering up a couple of smoothly bonkers scenes where he takes full advantage of his inherent charms. Benny Safdie (of the Safdie Brothers) is an uptight delight as mayoral candidate Joel Wachs. Meanwhile, in the not-them-but-them category, we have Christine Ebersole as a delightful Lucille Ball stand-in. And in an absolute highlight, we get a stretch where Sean Penn plays William Holden analog Jack Holden as an aging movie star oozing with slimy charm; he’s eventually joined by Tom Waits of all people playing a director named Rex Blau. Seriously, Penn and Waits spending five minutes out-sleazing each other is one of the best things I’ve seen on screen in the past year. And on and on it goes.

Look, there are some issues here. There’s the elephant in the room regarding the age dynamics between our two protagonists (an issue that could have been largely defanged by ending the film two minutes earlier) – it only gets icky a couple of times, but it does get there. And there’s a whole thing with John Michael Higgins playing a Japanese restaurant owner who insists on speaking broken English to his Asian wife … and then to his second Asian wife in a subsequent scene. These two are the big ones, and neither undercuts the overall impact of the film.

“Licorice Pizza” probably isn’t at the top of the PTA heap, but rather more middle of the pack. And hey – that’s fine. Mid-tier Anderson still gets you one of the best films of the year, which this very much is. It is a story about memory, about growing up and about the many different forms love can take.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 10 January 2022 11:01

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