Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza ★★★★

I went into Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film with some apprehension, as I tend to do now with highly anticipated new works from any auteur director who I once blindly worshiped. I knew nothing about the film, having avoided watching (but frequently hearing) the trailer, but I got the sense that this was to be an exercise in nostalgia, heavily scored with songs, and designed to evoke a time and place that can now only exist in cinema. There's a lot of these films being made nowadays, because being flooded with images of locations or props and hearing music from our youth is an instant way to tap into our emotions. Sometimes it can feel like cheating. A montage of footage from any movie with David Bowie's "Life on Mars" blasting underneath it is a guaranteed way to make anything look that much better. Try it at home. I used the trailer for "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" and damn if it didn't look pretty good. My fears that LICORICE PIZZA would merely be a progression of enough needle-drops to arouse "Pinhead" were thankfully unfounded. Anderson earned my faith and trust, and he has done as fine a job creating a detailed era from the past as any I've seen in years.

Anderson doesn't show off too much. The production design here is meticulous but also feels lived in. A far cry from the seemingly untouched museum exhibits that you might see in a Todd Haynes film, for instance. The look and feel of almost every location is perfect, with colored lights reflecting off glowing wood paneling in ways I hadn't seen quite like this since my youth. It's a very strong feeling to see a time look the way you remember it, rather than the heightened way that it has been transformed through clichéd filters from years of pop culture portrayals. This extends beyond the locations and inanimate objects, but also to the cast. Anderson has cast two relatively unknown actors in the lead roles, Cooper Hoffman, son of the director's collaborator and muse Philip Seymour, and Alana Haim, who I am told is a popular singer, but after seeing her performance here I'm beginning to think she's in the wrong profession. Donning their flawlessly authentic thrift store garb, these two look like no other movie stars that we see today, with imperfect skin, unique features, and shapely bodies. This is one of those rare films you'll see in which seeing the lead characters, for many of us, might feel like looking in a mirror.

The film does take place in and around Los Angeles though, so there are plenty of beautiful people with film star qualities to them. Nearly all of the recognizable actors who pop up here are playing established stars and figures in show business, so they fittingly stand out. Sean Penn is effectively typecast as an aging, leathery leading man, perhaps a "Network" era William Holden, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as hairdresser/gigolo turned producer Jon Peters, in what comes across as a petty dig at him and Streisand for not giving him their blessing for his "A Star is Born" remake. Let it go, Brad. Barbara's was better. These colorful characters could have been distracting, but they never risk upstaging the central focus of the film, which is a rather simple would-be love story.

Our lead characters here, Gary and Alana, are separated by a decade in age (or more?) but are still almost uncontrollably drawn to one another. Alana seems to be clinging to her youth, in a bid to not meet her strict family's expectations for her, and Gary, a child actor and hustling entrepreneur, is so confident and ambitious that he can't help but intrigue Alana, until he does something immature enough to remind her why romance is an impossibility. Their casual interaction sparks questions from those around them of why they're not dating, even though there are dozens of unspoken and obvious reasons to be drawn from. The two fledging actors shoulder the film about equally and I was very impressed with both of them. Alana Haim has a natural ease that anchors the film, never once giving off the sensation that we're watching an amateur at work, and Hoffman manages to step far enough away from his father's shadow, though occasionally will give a brief look that makes the audience gasp with recognition. They fit into these characters so well that I frankly don't care if they ever continue acting, even if this does seem to be designed as a star-making vehicle for success.

Los Angeles as a setting doesn't have that much special meaning to me, at least outside of cinema. I expect this film will be all the more embraced by those who call it home and are old enough for this to feel like time travel. Anderson peppers the film with so many references to obscure films, local politics, and forgotten landmarks that I started to wonder if he gets a certain smug satisfaction knowing that a wide swath of the film's audience won't catch everything he puts in there. This does feel like it was made just for him and those with a similar and very specific upbringing. But he remains one of our best cinematic storytellers, and although the tone of the film is sometimes reminiscent of works from Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Cameron Crowe, and Hal Ashby, the film never feels derivative of others, and I think I actually like it a lot more than the films that invite some of the most obvious comparisons. There's also some homages from rather unexpected sources, ranging from "Taxi Driver" to the Lucile Ball/Henry Fonda comedy "Yours, Mine, and Ours," but I suppose we've come to expect a flexing of influences from Anderson at this point. The inside Hollywood angle of the film might be an occasionally unnecessary diversion, but this is still a side of that side of show business that has gone largely unexplored.

This is a lightly plotted film, which ends up being an asset. Without looking at my watch, I was rarely able to tell if I had been watching it for thirty minutes or two hours. At one pivotal moment I was certain I was experiencing the film's climax but I still had an entire act to go. Not much substantial happens in the film, but it's always an enjoyable hang and I probably would have comfortably settled in for anextension of these characters' misadventures. Even with every sequence feeling like a casual subplot, I do wonder if it was the best decision to end the film with a detour into the political campaign of a potential romantic rival, played by Benny Safdie. It’s not that it’s a less compelling diversion than anything else here, but the story had already reached its peak with the exciting Jon Peters set piece involving a harrowing ride down the hill in a truck coasting on gas crisis era fumes, a just barely avoided metaphor for the film’s final act. I liked this film a lot, maybe more than I expected to and almost as much as I'd hoped to. Even writing and reflecting upon it now I keep catching myself smiling when pulling out some of the film's most charming moments from my still fresh memory. Only a few hours past the credits and I'm already looking forward to seeing this again.

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