Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza ★★★½

Like its title, Licorice Pizza is a full meal of candy and carbs. It has a magnificent soundtrack and a few moments of absolute stunning clarity that will go down as some of Paul Thomas Anderson's best work. But it also felt lacking in nutrients and made me feel a little queasy afterward. It's a California anthology of scenarios of rubbing up against ego-driven adults (an actor, a politician, a movie studio honcho who rose to prominence through hairdressing the stars) set against interesting period details like gas rationing, pinball becoming legal again after nearly four decades of being illegal, and waterbeds becoming trendy. All of these scenarios are folded into a calzone where what's baked in is a will-they or won't-they friendship that constantly teeters into potential romance between a 15-year-old opportunist (Cooper Hoffman) and a lost 25-year-old (Alana Haim).

There is a lot that I loved in Licorice Pizza but first what didn't work for me, every moment that I stopped to think about it; which was often. It's spoken aloud by Alana (Haim) herself: "do you think it's weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time? I think it's weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time." It is weird that these two spend so much intimate time together, particularly coming from the two age groups, teenagers and twentysomethings, where age gaps are felt the most even in small gaps, let alone a decade. To me, it feels like PTA painted himself into a corner of paying homage to a beloved friend and actor by casting his young son (Hoffman) opposite someone else he really wanted to cast, a member of the sister-trio band, HAIM, whom he's directed in 8 music videos. Licorice Pizza is a major coming out party for two beginning actors, who are both very good, but whose presence opposite each other makes something that could've been an absolutely beguiling cinematic explosion, feel off from pit stop to pit stop. (For year-end purposes, I feel similarly about LP as I do Annette, this has many of the single best cinematic moments of the entire year but the whole doesn't reach the heights of those moments, but goddamn I relish and admire individual moments here like they are Biblical.)

When Pizza works best between them it's representing platonic friendship between opposite genders in ways that we don't get enough in movies but absolutely rings true. The jealousy, the closeness that makes you want to be there for the other person when things go wrong yet unable to move in on moments of heartache because you care too much. The opposite reactions to traumatic things happening (laughing it off versus needing immediate life change) this all rings true but it never makes my heart sing. The disbelief of a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old spending all this time together, from moneymaking scheme to moneymaking scheme, disquiets or blunts much of the beauty on screen. A shorter gap between the two and I go with it to all its dizzying heights. Like a motorcycle jumping over the flames.

The all consuming levels of infatuation of youth vs. the wayward attempts to find your place in the world are fully realized. It covers a lot of ground but only one section is lesser than the others, which is Alana's attempt to be an actress (well, and the Japanese restaurant stuff is so out of place but I’m talking between the two leads). Beyond that, every detour is incredibly rich, which includes touches on the fallibility of idealism and the coked-out entitlement to being in the first position for fuel during a nationwide gas shortage due to status. Within this is one of PTA's best single sections of filmmaking, involving a truck rolling down a hill, that would stand next to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin for its silent artistry and intensity. This includes the aftershocks on the sidewalk as well, Alana watching juvenile boys and men all around her.

If I'm being honest, Licorice Pizza was a peaks and valleys viewing experience until that truck moment. And everything that followed it was absolutely perfect up until the last few seconds. It felt like PTA was wisely letting his characters figure themselves out but the last line of the movie brought me back to some unease that could've been avoided altogether if the age difference weren't so unbelievable. I don’t mean that she’s a predator, nor that I need “moral characters” in my movies. But not being able to buy them hanging out all the time keeps me at a further distance than a hug. I can’t embrace it, but I can enjoy it from a distance. For me, this was very close to being otherworldly special but instead I snacked on individual moments of next-level filmmaking without sustenance because the central relationship was a difficulty for me throughout.

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