Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn and Tom Waits Join Newcomer stars Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman for a Quality Slice of Early 1970s Life.
DIRECTED BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON/2021
It’s entirely possible, even likely, to make it through the whole of Licorice Pizza without knowing what you are consuming. For literalists, the film’s appellation- sounding like something that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might indulge in… may well prove to be the movie’s biggest sticking point. Nowhere to be found, however, is any titular licorice, nary even a slice of pizza. To echo a classic quote from The Simpsons: “I can think of two things wrong with that title”.
Yet, there’s nothing wrong with Licorice Pizza. For his latest (and all too rarified) cinematic foray, arch-auteur Paul Thomas Anderson serves up another savory dish worthy of his reputation to expertly confound. Still, this is Anderson’s most approachable movie; also his most rewatchable. There are big laughs in this custom dish as the filmmaker leans his furthest yet into sustained mainstream comedy. It altogether leans in to audience friendly territory, though, while also leaning out (no PTA film will ever not lean out, at least a little).
Welcome to the unsexy San Fernando valley of the early 1970s- a boring go-nowhere suburb that just happens to be frequented by the likes of Sean Penn (playing an aging Hollywood leading man looking for thrills), Tom Waits (playing a very Tom Waits-like barroom raconteur) and Bradley Cooper (playing a comically gonzo Jon Peters). We know this place, even as we’ve never been there like this.
This is nothing short of an unabashedly rocky nostalgia trip; a first-rate immersion into a second-rate time, itself fueled by third-rate nostalgia and what turned out to be first-rate pop music. Via rarified use of a certain film graininess, flat lighting, and good lord!, the set dressing, Anderson immerses viewers in a time when t-shirts had colored necklines and weren’t afraid to be gosh-darned scratchy. Per the forgotten cruddy movies of the time Licorice Pizza takes place, it is makeup-free cinema, internally encouraging of continuity-defying acne and the slight sheen of au naturel facial oils.
Licorice Pizza is a me-decade suburban American simulacrum that succeeds in nearly every rendering. While heavily favoring the very early part of the decade, Anderson, all these years later, still can’t resist his in-your-face Boogie Nights hodgepodge of the most 1970s things. (Why should the characters have a common no-frills bowl light fixture when they could have a circular slated-wood number?) Most of the film’s many needle-drops are Nixon-era appropriate, but not all. Sometimes, the right tune is simply timeless.
At one point, Anderson ushers us into a regional pop culture indulgence called a “teen convention” or some such- no doubt the height of what passed for nerded-out geekdom in the pre-Comic Con days. While the filmmaker is obviously taking pleasure in this opportunity to give glimpses of this Green Hornet-level of warmed-over junk culture on parade, he knows its place is the fringes. Even still, eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie (the latter of whom is currently lovingly crafting an inexplicable feature of The Munsters, in Licorice Pizza playing “themselves”). This sequence is both a smart contextualization and a fun gift from Anderson; his own “Area 52” moment. (To cite Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action).
Musician Alana Haim stars as Alana Kane, a frustrated young woman of twenty-five, professionally and relationally adrift. Haim’s own debut onscreen footedness comes across as nothing but sure. This is no doubt largely due to her established on-camera collaborations with Anderson, who’d directed several videos for her band, Haim. (Her bandmate siblings as well as her parents play her siblings and parents in the movie). In the whole of Licorice Pizza, from its perfect trailer upward, the actress is simply perfect. Her abrasive demeanor, her percussive bralessness, her absolute unwillingness to play games… Alana’s Alana is one of the most unforgettable characters of recent time, and a plum first role for the Haim.
The whole of Licorice Pizza is a plotless old-school amusement park ride of the ongoing attraction/repulsion back-and-forth of Alana and the quite younger Gary Valentine. How much younger? Well, at the beginning of the film, he claims to be fifteen. But the actor playing him, newcomer Cooper Hoffman (who nonetheless exhibits the genes of his late father, frequent PTA collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, in looks and talent), does not seem fifteen. As a quickly aging-out child actor (based loosely on Anderson’s friend, former kid star Gary Goetzman) perhaps he’s fudging his age? In any case, Gary is still in high school. He crosses paths with Alana on picture day as she’s there working with the photographer. For her, an otherwise forgettable in a job she’ll soon leave becomes an unsuspected watershed.
Or is it? Gary sure seems to think so. He circles her, she understandably eye-rolls him away. But, as the months go on, she finds herself voluntarily in his sphere. And as he gravitates into mundane fly-by-night entrepreneurial ventures, acquiring a small crew of dim hangers-on, his interest in her also becomes on-again/off-again. They’re stuck together in this greasy-faced and hormonal Faulkner-esque depiction of the human heart in conflict with itself. (The one thing, per that author, that is the only thing really worth writing about). Is it icky? Somehow, no. Though for many, that may only color it all the ickier. But, despite Licorice Pizza’s overarching Crown International Pictures disposable teen drive-in programmer vibe (where hormones were freely satiated with all the sex, drugs and rock and/or roll that the producer’s dismissive budget could buy wholesale), this, so to speak, is Anderson’s most spiritually chaste movie. The film earns its R-rating with well-placed verbal f-bombs rather than on-screen f-bombing.
The title, by the way, is appropriately music centric. Rather glaring and embarrassingly obvious, it turns out that “licorice pizza” is an old, clever synonym for vinyl records. There was even a bygone record store chain that went by the name. It was owned by a guy named James Greenwood. Any relation to the film’s composer, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood? Not even the Internet seems to have an answer to that. But wouldn’t it be cool if there was?
Licorice Pizza comes together by never really coming together. Not unlike driving backwards, it eventually reaches its destination, albeit memorably unconventionally, and a little precariously. It’s coming-of-age meander- stunted, naive, or otherwise- is entirely the delicious point. Licorice Pizza, with its surprise flavors amid familiar texture, is one of the very rare film feasts that one hoped wouldn’t end. Despite the percolating discomfort of where the central relationship might or might not be heading, it rolls on as inherently watchable. Theirs is a god-awful small affair, but their film is not at all a saddening bore.