“I thought Paul Thomas Anderson was a musician when I got the “Boogie Nights” soundtrack,” Alana Haim said during the Q&A following the screening of “Licorice Pizza” at the historic Regency theater in Westwood. She may have been joking a bit because we learned during the same conversation that PTA has been a family acquaintance for a long time: the Haim sisters’ mother was in fact his art teacher when he was a teenager attending a school in the San Fernando Valley and, evidently, she has been following his career since. But Alana’s remark is not far from reality. Anderson’s approach to filmmaking is much closer to that of a songwriter than a Hollywood money-making machine. “Licorice Pizza” has barely a plot or a story, it’s rather a series of vignettes of life, and from the first scenes to the last ones, it’s obvious that PTA is now much more interested in feelings and moods than plots and storylines.
Have you ever thought about how artificial movies can be sometimes? Most movies try to convince you that everything has a logical story with an outcome, whereas little of this makes any sense in real life. If life has a beginning and an end like a movie, life doesn’t have a plot or a storyline. When thinking about our past, we often remember slices of life, intense moments, feelings and strong emotions, moods of all colors, and this could be what “Licorice Pizza” is about. A winding dream sequence of the life of two teenagers in the ‘70s, constantly running into each other. Just like adolescence, their life is meandrous, impulsive and it often looks like a junkyard full of false starts – it’s an Elliott Smith’s line on purpose because his dreamy and impressionistic approach to songwriting has a similar sensibility to Anderson’s – but it’s a nostalgic junkyard that doesn’t have an ounce of sentimentalism.
In “Licorice Pizza,” named after a record store chain popular in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, time is not an issue. We are not even sure that everything is happening over the course of one summer or several years, although Gary Valentine (played by Cooper Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son) is supposedly 15 during the entire movie. An ex-child actor, he has swagger and assurance beyond his young age and immediately hits on 25-year-old Alana (played by Alana Haim of the indie rock band), whom he meets on yearbook portrait day at the local high school. Right away, Gary declares he has met the girl he’s going to marry. All smiles, Gary has incredible confidence and faith in himself, he is a showman, a salesman, borderline conman with that future “San Fernando Valley used-car salesman” look, who exactly knows what he wants: the girl. “I’m not going to forget you, just like you are not going to forget me.“
During the movie, Gary will start many businesses and if we never know exactly when and why he does not pursue his acting career, a look and a line by a casting director (PTA’s wife, Maya Rudolph) when auditioning him for a commercial may tell the whole story: “You got so huge.”
From waterbed salesman – Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad plays a cameo selling Gary his first water mattress – to Pinball Parlor owner to campaign aid for politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), it’s difficult to think how Gary could have accomplished all this at 15, during a very busy 1973 summer, but once again timeline barely matters in “Licorice Pizza.” At the opposite of the very driven young man, Alana seems lost and is drawn into a strange romance with Gary. She constantly seems irritated by him, questions her desire to hang out with him and his friends, but she is nevertheless onboard for each one of Gary’s adventurous enterprises that he may just start to impress her.
Much has been said of such a romance between a teenager and an older woman, and even though we are never convinced of their respective ages – at 15, Gary acts as if he were 35, while Alana doesn’t know what she wants at 25 – the age difference just seems to be an obstacle for their love. They are often both very mature and childish, both at the hinge between adolescence and adulthood, but they both live their lives with that sort of freedom that only exists in the ‘70s. A 15-25 romance will certainly be regarded as cringy and “problematic” by some people in 2021, but PTA is never interested in giving us a message or even a judgment, an opinion about an inappropriate age relationship. “Licorice Pizza” has certainly no message or ideology, and the Gary-Alana romance certainly could not care less about 2021 political correctness or moral judgment. The movie is just about how Gary looks at her with the innocence of first love.
Unlike many examples in other movies by Anderson, Gary and Alana‘s story is almost heavy-drama-free: there are no suicides, crimes, or child abuse like in “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” or “There Will Be Blood,” and this is probably PTA’s more light and serene movie ever. Drama is played in the background of the characters’ young romance from Nixon on TV, to Vietnam-era America, to the oil crisis including gas shortages. This is the occasion for one striking scene showing Gary running along a standstill gas station line, shouting “it’s the end of the world!” while David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is blasting. The music always plays a big role in PTA’s movies and the soundtrack includes many other titles probably less obvious than this classic Bowie moment: this includes Nina Simone’s “July Tree,” Sonny & Cher’s “But You’re Mine,” Chuck Berry’s “My Ding‐A‐Ling,” Suzi Quatro, Chris Norman’s “Stumblin’ In,” The Doors’ “Peace Frog,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Lisa Listen to Me,” without forgetting longtime musical collaborator Jonny Greenwood, who conceived the film’s cues. There is also a very special and tender moment when Gary and Alana’s hands barely touch each other when lying on a waterbed, while Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” is playing. It’s a platonic romance: their knees brush under the table and the most erotic scene is some heavy breathing on the phone when they don’t even say a word. Alana and Gary’s constant physical runs toward each other, like powerful magnets that keep getting attracted, exult plain freedom, and the running scenes are also much more interesting than the consummation of the bond in the classical sense.
The real violence comes from other characters, including a completely out-of-control Jon Peters (played by a larger-than-life Bradley Cooper), who buys a waterbed for his girlfriend Barbra Streisand. He seems coming straight from one of these coked-out pool parties of “Boogie Nights,” and, because of the gas shortage, the delivery will not go smoothly. This will lead to the most outrageous and funny scenes of the movie with a massively coke-fueled Peters, alternately threatening to murder Valentine’s entire family and flirting with Alana. Almost every grown-up the couple encounters is revealed to be a threat or a complete asshole or a lunatic: Lucille Doolittle (a character based on Lucy Ball played by Christine Ebersole) who appears with Gary in a sort of Brady Bunch show, threatens to castrate him. Actor Jack Holden (somewhat based on William Holden and played by Sean Penn) flirts with Alana at the Tail O’ the Cock restaurant, after she is being considered for a role in his movie. He then decides to shoot a motorcycle stunt on a local golf course with the help of film director Rex Blau (a predictably flamboyant Tom Waits) and almost kills himself in the process. Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a Japanese restaurant owner, grossly mocks her Japanese wives’ accent… Meanwhile, Alana is told several times she has a “very Jewish nose,” although this is becoming very fashionable.
A lot will be said of the performances of the two young actors, as they are both playing their first role and they are both fantastic. They are carrying the movies, especially Alana Haim who is, even more than Gary/Cooper, the central character of the movie. Alana is certainly a revelation, while the entire Haim family (her 2 sisters and parents) are in the movie. More than ever, PTA’s numerous closeups reveal glowing naked faces (as the actors seem to wear very little to no makeup at all), and Alana’s natural abilities in front of the camera. Every detail of the scene has obviously been carefully crafted to bring back the authenticity of a hot summer in the valley in the ‘70s. The movie is probably one of PTA’s funniest ones with plenty of inside jokes you may or may not always get immediately: Bradley Cooper, of recent “A Star Is Born” fame, plays Barbra Streisand’s coked-up and very agitated boyfriend. Cooper’s father, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was selling mattresses in PTA’s “Punch-Drunk Love”… but I am sure there are other ones.
Inspired by PTA’s childhood as well by his friend Gary Goetzman (Tom Hanks’ production partner), “Licorice Pizza” is a love letter to a city and a time that doesn’t exist anymore, an ode to freedom and possibilities, a story where time collapses thanks to the dream-like confusion of nostalgia-infused memories. More than a story, the movie captures a mood to perfection while the flawless ‘70s aesthetic is refreshingly not preoccupied with today’s obsession with ideology… that Japanese accent mockery has already been at the center of many discussions, just like the characters’ “inappropriate” romance.
In the end, don’t look for the heaviness of “Magnolia” or “Punch Drunk Love”, or PTA’s other films set in the Valley. “Licorice Pizza” is a lighter movie, but much more about refusing to become an adult than a movie about growing up. Each scene is full of authentic slices of life, and just like Alana showing her boobs to Gary and then slapping him on the face when he asks her if he can touch them, life can be a mess: it can be a series of false starts but it doesn’t mean you should not dare everything.
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