"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Licorice Pizza

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson was born, raised and continues to live in the San Fernando Valley in California. It has and continues to provide a source of inspiration for some of his most personal films, including Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and Licorice Pizza (2021). He even shot parts of his adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice (2014) in the Valley. Why does PTA return to this place repeatedly? Beyond the convenience of shooting close to home, he is fascinated by the towns and the people that inhabit them as evident most significantly with Licorice Pizza, a nostalgic look back at the area, focusing on the burgeoning romance between two young people in 1973.
This is a largely plotless film that follows the misadventures of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old high school student, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old woman. He’s an aspiring actor with several projects already on his resume and she works for a photographer. They meet at his school during class photo day and immediately starts hitting on her. Initially, she’s repulsed by him but gradually he wears down her resistance through sheer force of will and she finds herself intrigued by his tenacity.
Gary is bursting with youthful confidence, ready to take on the world and launch his next entrepreneurial scheme, whether it’s selling waterbeds or opening a pinball emporium. Alana already seems resigned to her lot in life when she tells him, “I’m going to be here taking photos of kids for their yearbooks when I’m 30. You’re never going to remember me.” This is such a sad admission for someone so young.

At the end of their initial encounter and after repeatedly insulting Gary, rebuffing his advances, Alana walks away, giving a little smile and a shake of her head that is handled beautifully by Alana Haim. It’s a wonderful, little moment in a film full of them as we see how Garry has gotten to her and she’s smitten. The film examines the push-pull of their courtship. He’s a hopeless romantic and she’s a jaded cynic. She knows that this can’t go anywhere because of their age difference, but is intrigued enough by his impressible attitude that she wants to see how it all plays out.
Soon, Alana finds herself caught up in Gary’s infectious optimism and the rest of Licorice Pizza follows these two and their wild misadventures as they navigate the will they or won’t they fall in love journey we’ve seen before albeit through PTA’s unique filter. Much has been made about the age gap between the two lead characters and PTA seems acutely aware of this, deftly handling their romance in a way that is sweet while eschewing anything overtly sexual.
After the initial meet-cute between Gary and Alana, the film stumbles and loses its way for a moment with a baffling scene where we see Gary’s mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) handle public relations for a local Japanese restaurant owned by an American (John Michael Higgins) and his Asian wife (Yumi Mizui). He speaks normally to Gary’s mom but to his wife in a cartoonish Asian accent that comes off as offensive. This scene is jarring in tone and content compared to the rest of the film. What is the point of it other than showing us what Gary’s mom does for a living? What are we supposed to take away from this scene? People were racist back in the ‘70s? It serves no real purpose and temporarily breaks the enchanting spell of the film. The same could be said about a weird, random moment later when Gary is suddenly and literally yanked from a scene by the police who mistakenly arrest him for murder. No reason is given and it is never addressed again.

Like he did with Punch-Drunk Love, PTA casts unconventional actors for his leads. Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim aren’t your typical handsome Hollywood actors – hell, they aren’t even actors at all, but rather normal-looking people that could’ve come out of the 1970s. For two people whose first time it is acting in a film Hoffman and Haim have wonderful chemistry together and are believable in their respective roles as they aren’t saddled with actorly affectations that can happen to professionally-trained actors at that age.
Gary talks a good game but doesn’t really know what he wants to do as evident with all the endeavors he starts but doesn’t stick with – acting, waterbed salesman, pinball emporium manager – but that’s okay, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You are supposed to try all kinds of things and have all kinds of experiences. That’s called growing up. Alana is self-aware and acknowledges how weird it is that she’s hanging out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends. She may not have it all figured but she’s trying and this journey she takes is one of the most fascinating aspects of Licorice Pizza.
PTA deftly chronicles the ups and downs of their relationship, from getting to know each other only to back off when faced with obstacles such as jealousy and rivals for their respective affections. They are both young and still figuring out how to communicate with each other and sometimes mixed messages are conveyed such as Alana overcompensating for her attraction to the younger Gary by getting briefly involved with a much older man, Jack Holden (Sean Penn channeling William Holden), an actor in the twilight of his career. This segues into a memorable vignette involving a veteran filmmaker (played by Tom Waits no less) who coaxes Jack into performing a wild stunt. He may be much older than Gary but he’s just as immature as Sean Penn illustrates masterfully with a deliciously eccentric performance.

Another memorable sequence comes when Garry and his friends deliver a waterbed to the house of famous hairdresser turned movie producer Jon Peters (a hilariously arrogant Bradley Cooper) who proceeds to go on about his very famous girlfriend Barbra Streisand and threatens them if they mess up assembling his waterbed. Bradley Cooper’s take on Peters is equal parts comical and frightening – a Hollywood mogul high on his own supply and with a raging ego to match it.

Hoffman does an excellent job conveying the awkwardness of being a teenager because he is one. He also exudes the arrogant confidence of youth. Gary hasn’t been beaten down by life yet and has no fear of failure. Haim’s performance epitomizes that weird zone of being in your mid-twenties where she’s out of school but hasn’t settled on a profession. Alana is no longer a child but doesn’t quite feel like an adult either. Her relationship with him only complicates things.
Licorice Pizza
perfectly captures what it means to be young with your whole life in front of you and not knowing what you want to do with it as evident in the montage of Gary’s burgeoning waterbed business set to “Peace Frog” by the Doors where we see his growing attraction towards Alana and vice versa. PTA remembers the age when you thought 30-years-old and over was ancient and a lifetime away. He also captures the awkwardness of youth, saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, succumbing to petty jealousy and feeling insecure about yourself. Licorice Pizza is PTA’s most unabashed romantic film since Punch-Drunk Love and a love letter to the place he’s lived his entire life. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), PTA has crafted an affectionate hang-out movie bathed in the warm, comforting glow of nostalgia for the ‘70s.