Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper and Benny Safdie.
Released: 1 January
Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent output has often been invigorating, but somewhat portentous, with such gravitas, it’s as if he’s insisting on his own auteurism. Throughout the years, his sensibility has got more academic and serious-minded – recent films were hard-hitting but somewhat chilly and remote. Fans of his earlier movies – Magnolia and Boogie Nights – will remember a warmer, more generous aesthetic.
So is his latest a return to Anderson’s sunnier, more open-hearted roots?
Licorice Pizza initially follows fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine (a boundlessly endearing Hoffman). On the day of school photos, he espies, twenty-five-year-old, photographer’s assistant Alana (musician Alana Haim; a revelation). An enterprising young man, Gary is no shrinking violet. He immediately asks Alana out. She scoffs and mocks him for his callow pep, but we can see she is charmed. He tells her he is an actor and a entrepreneur. Pugnacious yet adrift, Alana’s impressed and agrees to meet him, with the proviso that it not be considered a date, as he is too young. She is, however, impressed by his acumen, so they go into business together, selling waterbeds, and acts as his chaperone for acting gigs.
There’s a glorious scrappiness to this film that is completely consistent with the false starts and role-playing of early adulthood. Gary and Alana make each other jealous with other love interests and have rows about the business but they can’t help but gravitate towards each other. There’s hardly a plot as such, but rather things happen to them, some consequential, others farcical.
Occasionally, I wondered if the film loses vitality when it veers off into its madcap non-sequiturs, but in retrospect, these idiosyncratic moments shine, and are a testament to Anderson’s unwillingness to pander to mainstream expectations. The subtle shifts in the power dynamic between our leads mean emotional engagement doesn’t falter.
At times the film’s naturalistic rhythms mutate into surreal zaniness – actor Jack Holden (Penn), hopelessly in thrall to his own mythos, performs a death-defying motorcycle stunt with Alana in tow; elsewhere, Jon Peters (Cooper), Barbara Streisand’s partner, threatens to murder Gary’s family. What saves these unreal moments from being jarring is the fact that this is Los Angeles, a town predicated on fakery. These grotesques make sense because they’ve been warped by fame and their outsized personas. Although Alana and Gary try to make it as actors and are clearly overawed by fame, Anderson is skewering Hollywood. There are moments when we peep behind these facades – a heart to heart with someone whose love has to remain in the shadows provides a moment of epiphany for Alana. In this murky, surface-obsessed world, what’s real is what’s hidden.
The pure-hearted naïveté of our protagonists is in stark contrast to the compromised adult world they are desperate to enter. Casual sexism and objectification is rampant, but the film honours the perspectives of both its protagonists equally, while still ensuring they are products of their time.
Anderson is clear-eyed about the avarice of 1970s Hollwood and yet is affectionate about its dreamers too. Here he has combined the generosity of his earlier work with the more forensic detachment of his recent work. This is so much more than the coming of age romp that was advertised. This charming, satirical film is a rich tapestry; it’s thrilling alive, textured and multifaceted.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Ross Carvill