'Licorice Pizza': Paul Thomas Anderson's Sunny Coming of Age Odyssey
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
A new film from Paul Thomas Anderson is always bound to cause some excitement regardless of its quality. Anderson tends to take his time with his projects, and there is a bit of unpredictability to his work. He has a distinct style and his films feature some commonly recurring themes, but you don't always know what you are going to get when it comes to PTA. His latest film, Licorice Pizza, is a great example of this. While his past few films have been slightly more esoteric and meticulously crafted, there is a sense of freedom all throughout Licorice Pizza that is quite refreshing, and sees Anderson delivering a shaggier, more tender film than what we have come to expect from him.
This film sees Anderson returning to his old stomping grounds in the San Fernando Valley. Anyone familiar with his work knows that this is where several of his films, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia took place. In many ways, this film feels like Anderson returning to his roots as a filmmaker, as this feels like a blend of various elements of his earlier films. While the obvious comparison would be Boogie Nights due to its 70s setting and aesthetic, but this film feels a bit closer to Punch-Drunk Love to me. Both films are much lighter in tone, and have a more heartfelt, almost dreamlike quality to them. But despite the similarities between this and his other films, Anderson still manages to craft a truly singular experience, and one of his more upbeat films to date.
This film tells the story of Gary Valentine, a 15 year-old child actor. He is constantly trying to pull off schemes to make money, spends his evenings at nice restaurants, and is desperately rushing towards adulthood as quick as he can. One day, he meets Alana Kane, a 25 year-old woman who he is immediately smitten with. Alana is in a strange place, as she is aimlessly navigating young adulthood, while still clinging to her youth ever so slightly. The two form an unlikely bond, and the film explores their relationship as they have a series of adventures set against the backdrop of Encino, California in the 1970s.
Those who feel that a movie needs to have a clear-cut plot might struggle with this film, as it is very loose and episodic in structure. Several characters come and go quickly, and the film bounces around quite a bit in terms of overall narrative. This free-form method of storytelling is a bit different from Anderson's typical work, but I felt it was a nice change of pace for him. It allows him to take his time and tell the story he wants to tell in a more freeing way. There is a youthful spirit to the film, but it maintains a sense of focus that keeps the film from being too light or too freewheeling. As a result, the film ends up being a hangout movie, but has enough going on under the surface for the audience to chew on.
Despite the shaggy nature of the film, it is quite nicely written. The dialogue feels natural, and the characters we meet over the course of the film are so distinct, even if we don't get to spend too much time with them. It is also one of Anderson's funnier scripts, and shows that he has a knack for humor when he chooses to use it. I also felt that the film uses its 70s setting quite nicely, and captures a specific place and time exceptionally well. As is the case with most episodic films, certain plot lines are stronger than others, but even the weaker ones are still pretty solid in my opinion. I wouldn't say this is Anderson's best script, but it is nice to see him loosen up a little, and approach the film with an almost playful energy.
Part of what helps the film stand stronger is the one-two punch of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. They are fantastic together, and navigate the complicated relationship between their two characters with a sense of authenticity and both give rather naturalistic performances. While they have such great chemistry together, they are also excellent individually. This is especially true with Haim, who gives an absolutely stellar and specific performance. She is able to convey so much with the subtlest look or movement, and it is marvelous to watch. She easily gives one of my favorite performances of the year, and I hope her work here leads to her showing up in more movies. Hoffman also gives a rather assured performance, and nails the charm and unabashed confidence of the character. He captures the character's want to be seen as more mature, while still playing certain aspects of him that show he still has some growing up to do. As far as debut performances go, both do a tremendous job, and are a driving force in why the film works so well.
The film also boasts an excellent supporting cast, even if most of them only show up for brief period of time. Sean Penn and Tom Waits are electric in their segment, with Waits in particular emerging as one of my favorite performances in the film. Harriet Sansom Harris takes what could have been a forgettable scene, and makes it one of the most memorable parts of the film with her role. She is absolutely dialed in, and elevates the scene in a major way. But the true scene-stealer of the film is none other than Bradley Cooper, who plays real-life producer Jon Peters. Cooper is only in the film for about 7 minutes, but he is magnetic for all of them. It's a very showy role, but he absolutely nails it, which contributes heavily to making his sequence arguably the best part of the film.
The camera work, as well as the editing, adds so much to the film. Anderson uses some of his trademark long takes, and the way he uses them in the context of the film is so effective, and at times, gives the impression that we are right there alongside Gary and Alana. The camera has an almost manic quality to it, yet it makes sure to stop and linger when needed. As for the editing, it weaves the episodic segments together beautifully, and helps keep the film moving at a lovely pace. It makes sure to take its time when it needs to, but still keeps the momentum going at the same time. The production design is also great, as it captures the time and place perfectly, and plays nicely into the aesthetic Anderson is going for.
I loved a great deal of the film, but there are a few aspects that didn't sit well with me. The first of these involves the scenes with John Michael Higgins, where he uses a stereotypical Asian accent when talking to a Japanese woman. This occurs twice in the film, and doesn't serve much of a purpose. I can't tell if it was played for laughs, or to show the racial insensitivity of the time, but either way, it feels so out of place from the rest of the film, and could have easily been cut. I also felt that certain aspects of the relationship between Gary and Alana were a little off. At this point, the discourse surrounding the age gap between the two has been going on for quite some time, and I have to say that it is quite off-putting and uncomfortable at times. However, the relationship is more of a platonic one, despite Gary's obvious crush on her. The film does toe the line here and there, and there are moments where I couldn't help but wonder what point, if any, Anderson was trying to make. I found them both charming together, but there were definitely moments where I wasn't comfortable with their relationship. But maybe that's the point, and it's supposed to make audiences uncomfortable and question certain things. Who's to say?
There is definitely a larger conversation to be had here, not only in regard to the more problematic elements of the film, but with the film as a whole. This is one of the things I love about PTA's films, as they become so much clearer on rewatch. The tinier details become clearer, and in some cases, the film reveals itself more fully. Anderson tends to let his films speak for themselves, which often allows for people to interpret them in their own way. This is especially true with Licorice Pizza, as there is quite a bit that he doesn't explicitly spell out here. Perhaps the more problematic elements will make a little more sense after a rewatch, and maybe the film itself will crystallize even further for me, but despite my issues with the film, I still liked it a lot. It's such a delightful film that I couldn't help but have a smile on my face for long stretches of it. I can't deny that the film is flawed, but I feel that it is almost flawed by design. Anderson isn't trying to make this a perfect film, and I don't think he's trying to make a definitive moral statement either. I think he's trying to tell a story about imperfect people who make questionable decisions, and explore concepts of growing up and how it affects certain people. There are other ways to view it, and I'm sure certain aspects will make a little more sense on rewatch, but as is, this is yet another excellent entry in Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography, and one of the most joy-inducing films of the year.