Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza ★★★★★


Don’t worry, NO SPOILERS

Well, I finally have seen my most anticipated film of the decade. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (known by many for two whole years as “Soggy Bottom”, thankfully we find out why) is an entirely endearing coming of age tale, with a pace of its own and a fantastic use of character-perpetuated tension. It’s another joint of his that doesn’t have much narrative drive at all, but the adventures of these young people, whether it be dangerous coincidence or on the spot emotional articulation, propels the fluttery feeling the audience has to the very last frame. While it toys with the controversy of its... borderline illegal premise, the amount of justification used for the age gap of these two well-rounded lovers is honestly impressive, even for a seasoned character writer like Anderson.

The balance and restraint between the charm and juvenility of 15 year old Gary Valentine paints his as both a strong representation of the hopefulness of young lust, and a budding curiosity with his newfound friend Alana Kane. Alana is pretty much the main character, as most of Gary’s decisions, in one way or another, end up serving a purpose narratively that makes Alana think positively or negatively of him, herself, and her entire outlook on life and its seemingly impossible pursuit of love. Alana Haim’s performance is jaw-droppingly spectacular, if anything is learnt from Licorice Pizza, it’s that this 29 year old Haim sister isn’t stuck in a rut of indie music cult obscurity by any stretch, her acting talents on display here scream that she is going places in this field.

Alana’s character herself is the perfect female representation of the pinnacle of PTA’s character work, diving back into the confused wanderer, enveloped by their setting, questioning their purpose, malleable in their experience. The amount of charisma packed into this one character is... quite honestly, the most I’ve enjoyed a single character in a movie in I don’t even know how many years. The journey that she goes on, being stuck in a motionless state at 25, having it be momentarily greased up a little by a child actor through happenstance, only for that bit of emotion to lead to insecurity and a random set of highjinks (Bradley Cooper is just perfect as real life film producer Jon Peters), is the overarching clarity that is missing in even the best coming of age films. The scene with “Let Me Roll It” playing completely murders any expectation of how someone would think this creepy relationship would play out, it’s a powerful moment that I won’t spoil, but an example of the endless nuances Paul can’t help but effortlessly excel at. Benny Safdie’s character is seemingly another offshoot ingredient to add to the mix of Alana’s life, but there’s one scene near the end that works on SO many levels. It’s a set up that establishes a line of tension filled scenes, only to be subverted, putting the protagonist on the spot, only for the situation to build empathy for every party involved, and build to a well earned slice of catharsis. I won’t spoil anything, but this dinner scene is some of the best direction PTA’s ever achieved, his framing cries out a somber context provided only through the visuals, of course extending to the facial control of Haim.

Even the scenes where we’re placed in her shoes of uncomfort, her face tells the whole story and dominates what the audience is really getting out of this. This is a chilled out B-side of PTA’s past explorations of 70’s LA, opting for toned down colors, mellow music, and the sense that any major real world involvement in the plot gently wades in and out of the lives of these characters. Seeing this in 70 millimeter adds a bunch to this specific feeling, the dim flicker punctuating the aura that Anderson is clearly going for. With this kind of plot structure, we get faces that stay longer than others, their screen time not relating at all to their impact on the story of these two lovers. Some may find this meticulous and indulgent, and PTA definitely has made it a staple of his, like his auteurist contemporaries, to revel within the humor of one specific thing, figuring out later how to work it in. Added to this is an element of nostalgia with the time frame, wisely used, with a hilarious passing cameo by John C. Reily that speaks for itself. But personally, I just ate all of this stuff up, the water bed introduction scene is just a fun extension of the up-close encounter we are treated to with Alana’s first acting agent with the same kind of scenic exploitation.

This is PTA’s second film that he is the cinematographer for, and he does a fantastic job at blending the pronounced and wide style of former collaborator Robert Elswit with his own lush and quiet look he established for himself on Phantom Thread. Plenty of wonderful decisions of what to focus on and when, which scenes to let play out and what to allude to, etc. Tracking shots and whip pans are surprisingly sparse, but ten times more effective due to the fact. While I love the ending, and the question raised by the directionless middle, the first third really is the beating heart of the movie. The introduction of this socially unattainable goal through the two leads blooms wonderfully with every bit of exposition, and the on-screen chemistry between Cooper Hoffman and Alana Kane makes Licorice Pizza feel like an instant classic when you’re watching it. Paul Thomas Anderson has really shown absolutely zero sign of stopping the greatness that his powerhouse ideas offer to this history of cinema. I’m glad to say Licorice Pizza lived up to my massive hype, and I urge everyone to go see this with its wide release on Christmas Day! 

Also this was like the best moviegoing experience of my life

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