Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper
Paul Thomas Anderson is – and always has been – a horny romantic. In autistic romcom Punch-Drunk Love he mirrored his great meet-cute with the perils of a phone sex hotline. For all it’s labyrinthine conspiracies, Inherent Vice was a story of love, devotion and beachfront sex. Even the prim and improper Phantom Thread undressed issues of a BDSM relationship without ever entering the bedroom. And then there’s his love letter to the ’70s porn industry Boogie Nights and the homoerotic frissons of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Whichever way you look his characters seem hot under the collar.
His latest picture, Licorice Pizza, takes a tonal swerve from the haughty claustrophobia of Phantom Thread, but the two are more connected than one might think. Both itemise strange codependent relationships that exist in liminal, taboo grey areas. Where his last investigated the intimacy of undulating power dynamics, his latest details fixation and obsession across the borders of maturity.
California, 1973. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15 year-old kid already hot on the heels of his American dream. With his go-getter family, he’s a burgeoning hustler, entrepreneur, copywriter and sometime-actor. Pocked with acne and sporting a slicked-down side-parting, he’s friendly with restauranteurs and mattress men. And while his abundant charm masks some barely-concealed anxiety, he carries it all off with a fake-it-’til-you-make-it philosophy that seems to be working for him.
Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is a 25(?) year-old Jewish girl coasting through her life, working disposable jobs and living at home with her parents and older sisters. Ambition isn’t her strong suit and this general proto-slacker mentality may go some way to explaining why she happily falls in with Gary and his circle of advocates. The film opens with Gary taking his shot at Alana while prepping for the school picture-take. Her immaturity and his restless ambition seem to spark somewhere in the middle, and though Alana rebuffs his horny advances, a thorny loyalty grows between them over the course of a long hot summer.
Much discourse has occurred over the age disparity between these two characters, and it’s something acknowledged within the film; it’s Alana’s primary shield to Gary’s determined overtures, but the more that the relationship grows in complexity, the less easy it is to reduce to the binaries of age-gap dissonance. Forever chasing the next golden opportunity, Gary is easily distracted (sometimes by girls his own age, more often by money-making hustles). And yet at the same time that flame for Alana never quite dies out. When she dallies with the affections of other men, territorial jealousy comes quickly to the fore.
For Alana, her friendship with Gary is genuine and fulfilling, and her interest in men older and more powerful than her is evidently more sexually motivated (something that irks Gary to no end). Licorice Pizza can be divided up episodically by these ‘intruders’; ambitious young actor Lance (Skyler Gisondo), fading actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), star-fucking cocaine-addled Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and mayoral candidate and idealist Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). In each case Gary is forced to suffer in the sidelines, reacting with varying degrees of volatility… fires that Alana is perfectly happy to stoke. Suddenly the dynamics between them seem not so far removed from those between Alma and Reynolds Woodcock. They two-and-fro and both seem to receive something from the tussle.
So Licorice Pizza is this, but it is also several other things, some of them undisciplined and unwieldy. The rambling, anecdotal nature of the piece and the centring of a horny 15-year-old male make it all seem inevitably autobiographical. Anderson’s love for the era (the one he’s revisited most often) remains unchallenged, and Licorice Pizza might be his most rose-tinted remembrance thus far. He romantically recalls that summer’s oil shortage, and structures the movie’s shaggiest (and most purely enjoyable) section around heady memories of gas station queues and long sticky nights of misadventure. Setting Gary running between queuing cars to the tune of Bowie’s “Life On Mars”, he conjures a sense of nostalgia buoyed with the indestructability of youth. It’s a moment of pure magic.
Elsewhere we see, through Anderson’s eyes, the decay and obsolescence of Hollywood’s golden age (i.e. Sean Penn) and the rise of youthful political agitation. He also tries to fold in the era’s hodge-podge approach to gender and sexual politics in the film’s final third, though this comes off a little half-baked; a fleeting diversion into paranoiac thriller territory that doesn’t quite go anywhere meaningful.
Still, it is all captured with Anderson’s trademark style. He’s back to paying frequent homage to Altman. And there’s a touch of Catch-22-era Mike Nichols about it all, too (especially an episode set on a golf course). But Anderson’s own signatures clearly register throughout. Those dolly-in montages and inelegantly beautiful natural lens flares are present and correct. And, as on Boogie Nights, as on Inherent Vice, he uses this opportunity to rifle through his own LP collection for another eclectic soundtrack of flat-out bangers.
After several back-to-back masterworks (yes I’m absolutely counting Inherent Vice in that run; it doesn’t get the love it deserves), there’s something a bit scratchy, a bit clunky about Licorice Pizza that gives it a flavour all of it’s own. All of PTA’s pictures feel like they’re “ones for him”, but Licorice Pizza feels particularly ambivalent about placating an audience. Anderson cruises down avenues that suit his own interest, and we’re simply along for the ride.
But his love for the journey is quite intoxicating. And his love for the people involved, too. He’s directed several music videos for HAIM, so the involvement of Alana and her sisters makes perfect sense. The casting of the so-game Cooper Hoffman belies that romantic heart of his, and you can feel the love on screen, particularly whenever Hoffman – by accident or by design – copies a gesture or a cadence that harks back to his ol’ man. And there are the usual old-guard loyalties to Jonny Greenwood and wife Maya Rudolph peppering the peripheries as one might expect.
As puffy, problematic nostalgia vehicles go, this is a bit of a strange one. It lacks the effortless ease of a Dazed & Confused, for instance, but it’s also not quite going for that. Instead it’s knottier, spikier. It’s all chipped teeth and funny faces. Gangly walks and bad postures. But there’s something exceedingly charming in it’s ramshackle, “fuck you” appearance. Something as authentic and unreachable as a teenage memory.
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