LICORICE PIZZA Review
A 15-year-old kid who thinks he knows it all falls head over heels with a 25-year-old woman who has no idea what she’s doing. Despite the age gap, this is the type of set up you could find in numerous romantic comedies created in the history of cinema. And let’s all be honest here for a moment: who in their life, especially in their youth, hasn’t found themselves entranced by someone older than them, or on the flip side, found themselves making one embarrassing/bad mistake after another on the journey towards maturity? Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the best American filmmakers currently operating certainly has based off his latest work, the disarmingly down-to-earth LICORICE PIZZA, a coming of age film that carries that unique Anderson flair of uneasiness.
If the 10 year age gap between child actor/constant hustler Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and his crush Alana (Alana Haim) didn’t give you a hint, LICORICE PIZZA, like many of Anderson’s other works is a film that enjoys basking in a low-lying moral grey area. Make no mistake, the romance we see on screen between the winning awkward/frazzled pairing of Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Haim isn’t necessarily supposed to be viewed as something healthy or smart for the main characters to embark on but as with any moments of impulsive fascination and lust, even a bad idea can look and feel good through the rose tinted glasses of childhood memory despite the uneven fit in not only their age, but their actual selves. Set under the blue sky 70’s of Anderson’s San Fernando Valley, a place brought to beautiful life by Anderson and Michael Bauman’s cozy cinematography, we follow Gary and Alana as they spend random dog days pursuing one another which somehow comes to involve local politicians, Barbara Streisand’s psychotic boyfriend Jon Peters, and a multitude of surprisingly successful business ventures launched by the 15-year-old Gary. Through almost vignette like fashion, these events come and go as quickly as a single summer day, with the only through line emerging in the will they/should they/won’t they that emerges between our two lovebirds.
But nothing is ever simple in a PTA film and LICORICE PIZZA thrives in the unsteady relationship between a kid and a young woman who more or less still acts like a kid. Gary, played with a genuinely awkward braggadocio by the first timer Mr. Hoffman, isn’t necessarily likeable (granted the multitude of ladies he pulls under his thumb says otherwise) but he feels and acts like what an over-confident 15 year old child actor would do and Hoffman sells all those tics in a natural way, letting those subtle moments of mean spirited immaturity seep through during Gary’s easy going exterior. On equal terms of likability lies Ms. Haim’s Alana, whose constant bad/impulsive decisions certainly feel authentic for a young woman who hasn’t quite figured out what life should be for her yet. Both performers effortlessly capture their respective free-wheeling emotions from scene to scene putting a frustrating if accurate duet that shows the ups and downs of puppy love. For both characters the world is at their fingertips, and through Anderson’s loving recreation of a specific time and place long gone showcased through a vibrant soundtrack and authentic sense of place, those wistful summer feelings of “anything can happen” retain LICORICE PIZZA’s overall warm atmosphere even as our main characters switch off reins at being an asshat at various points.
While the subject matter is certainly a bit more mainstream compared to his previous works, those disquieting peculiarities of people that PTA has always focused on in past features peek their heads in and elevate a worn setup towards a love story that ultimately is destined to fail. Whether its in the numerous amount of running scenes Gary and Alana embark on (once again proving that Anderson is possibly the best filmmaker at capturing people in motion) or in the occasionally off-kilter soundtrack courtesy of Johnny Greenwood that clinks and clatters in the film’s most tense moments, the love story here certainly carries the feeling and tension of making rash and hectic decisions for 2 hours straight. Even with such a frantic air, the numerous fits and tantrums and on and offs that the film and its characters embark on can get a little tedious and frustrating — intentionally so, I imagine, in order to really capture the true essence of Gary and Alan’s rocky relationship — and at 2 hours, LICORICE PIZZA’s sometimes sketchy structure leads to some scenes dragging more than others.
But when those scenes soar? I mean, have you seen a Paul Thomas Anderson scene when it soars? It’s pure weapons grade movie magic! Indeed, the director/writer puts together some truly marvelous scenes here, most of which involving the multitude of one-scene side characters that liven up Gary and Alana’s back and forth, most notably personified in the cocaine fueled comedic performance of Bradley Cooper. Playing the real life Jon Peters with a quick trigger performance that brilliantly teeters between hilariously out of touch and hilariously psychotic (see: the scene where Cooper threatens to murder Hoffman’s family), Cooper steals the tragic miniscule amount of screen time he occupies before disappearing just as abruptly as he appeared. And so it goes for almost every other bit character in this thing as the likes of Haim’s own family members, Tom Waits, and Harriet Sansom Harris all make for some of the film’s comedic high marks.
Ultimately, that’s what LICORICE PIZZA seems to be content with being: a relatively breezy coming of age comedy that nonetheless can’t shake Anderson’s unique observations. It isn’t his most audacious or even most purely entertaining work but even as a relatively lesser entry in an otherwise excellent filmography, Anderson has a skill of having his films stick with the viewer even after the final reel departs. Of course, if there was one filmmaker to turn a movie about a summer fling into something that somehow someway remains unwieldy and uncompromising, it’d be PTA.