Paul Thomas Anderson has eight Academy Award nominations. Despite making Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread, he has yet to nab one. He just might win one though for his latest movie, Licorice Pizza, which we all (well, I can chime in now) adore. To this, there are two things to be said. First off: FINALLY. Second, I’m all here for it. Licorice Pizza is a thoroughly wonderful movie, one that slaps a smile on you from beginning to end without ever missing a beat or ever striking a false note.
There have been a lot of comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s last masterwork, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and while in terms of story they differ, it’s easy to see the comparison. Licorice Pizza is a hangout movie; a groovy trip back in time (this time being the mid-70s, in San Fernando Valley) filled with atmosphere, needle drops, and a lovely laid back vibe that feels effortless but surely isn’t. It’s all delivered so beautifully because of Anderson’s writing and directing. From start to finish, he puts his faith in the setting but in particular his characters, and he has such a keen ear for writing and authenticity that the movie never feels meandering. He’s telling a story, but it’s not as much a story as a series of anecdotes, but the glue holding it together is an unconventional romance that only Anderson could’ve made this sweet, sincere, and cheerful.
If anyone can concoct an unconventional romance convincingly, it’s PTA. Romantic comedies are sort of dead, unless you watch that Netflix stuff, because it’s kind of all been done before. Not in his hands though. Remember Punch Drunk Love, about a mentally unhinged loner who found love with another nutty weirdo while he battled a phone sex operating ring while also racking up flyer miles through pudding? Or what about his last masterwork, Phantom Thread? Which was a romantic comedy masquerading as a costume drama about a couple who had a very particular kink involving poisoning? Strange stuff, but he has such a genuine way of delivering and depicting these people and making us care about them that it’s all so weirdly wonderful. Licorice Pizza is further proof of that.
The film of course works wonders because of the craftsmanship and the writing, but it should be noted that it’s also carried on the backs of two people who had never acted before. Headlining a Paul Thomas Anderson movie would have to be a feat on its own, and headlining this one is Alana Haim (a musician) and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman). If there was any doubt about these two, it pretty much goes out the window by the end of the opening scene. Haim plays Alana, Hoffman plays Gary Valentine. As the film opens, she is trying to get a picture of someone at a high school, and Gary takes her up on it. He is immediately into her and asks her on a date. He’s 15, she’s 25, and while she is aware of the age gap, she is also impressed by how winning and charming he is. Both of them are aware that the date isn’t to be romantic, but she is nonetheless somewhat taken with him, so she takes him up on his offer.
From that point on, we’re off. It’s really impressive just how well Anderson lands this scene. He lets us know pretty much everything we need to know about these people in a matter of five minutes, and Hoffman (whose resemblance to his father really is striking) and Haim are so natural, together and separate, that we immediately buy into these two. The film is a time capsule, and it’s certainly rooted in some truth (more on that later), but it’s shown through the eyes of these two people, while also building and developing their characters throughout. The basis of this movie does come from their relationship and dynamic. They do care about one another, but every time something pulls them closer, something else pushes them apart. Alana starts seeing someone her age, but then realizes that she’d just rather be around Gary. Gary finds interest in girls his age, and Alana sets her sights elsewhere. It’s a cycle, but it’s one that is rooted in truth. We believe in these people, we care about them, and we root for them.
This is the main storyline of Licorice Pizza but it should be said that this is also a film of anecdotes and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos. Some of which, absolutely must be true. It’s been said that Gary is apparently based on producer Gary Goetzman, a frequent collaborator of Tom Hanks and former child star. There is also a great appearance from Sean Penn, who is playing some form of William Holden. The best of all though is Bradley Cooper, playing coked out film producer Jon Peters. If Cooper had a few more minutes, he would be winning an Oscar; you have to do some waiting, but when he appears, it’s a great mix of hilarious and terrifying.
Oh yeah, speaking of hilarity, this is probably Anderson’s funniest movie to date. Humor is present in Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread, but it’s prominent this time, making this one of his sharpest films to date. It’s also just such a thoroughly charming film, one that sets out to deliver a great time, and succeeds. It succeeds because it’s hilarious, but also because of the marvelous performances at its core. It should also be said that it’s just fabulously crafted through and through. Anderson has delivered a film that is visually gorgeous (he serves as a partial cinematographer, and this looks like his other films in the best way) and dreamy. He has made some really hard hitting dramas and films that are tremendously epic in terms of scope, and it’s nice to see that, at 51, he’s having fun while also delivering something special while also being truly his. It’s a film about two good hearted souls trying to find their place in the world, without realizing what they have in front of them. It’s perhaps the most wonderful time of the year.
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