Gritted teeth and fixed bayonettes.
Let’s face it: there’s an elephant in the room (well, make that two with the casual racism) when even beginning to talk about Paul Thomas Anderson‘s latest San Fernando Valley in the 1970s vibe of a movie adorned by two words the writer/director says supply a Pavlovian response to his past, Licorice Pizza. It’s about the exploits of a fifteen-year-old hustler named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the twenty-five-year-old soon-to-be friend/business partner named Alana Kane (Alana Haim) that he tries to pick-up at his high school’s yearbook photo session. Is it mostly platonic? Yes. Do the characters acknowledge the statutory rape implications? Yes. Would people be up-in-arms if the genders were reversed? Yes. Is the age discrepancy necessary to tell the story? No. Yet here we are anyway.
The film is loosely based on the younger years of Anderson’s friend and Playtone co-founder Gary Goetzman. He was a child actor who later became a waterbed salesman like Gary on-screen with anecdotes about wild adventures on the fringes of the industry. So, it’s a fun premise with ample room for embellishment—so much so that Anderson even asked the real Jon Peters (to whom Goetzman apparently sold a bed) if he could create a nightmarish version of him only to hear back that he could do whatever he wanted as long as he included his favorite pick-up line in the script. Peters (played by a fantastic Bradley Cooper) is in the film for about ten total minutes, but perfectly exemplifies the skit-like, gonzo nature of the whole.
Licorice Pizza is therefore on a similar wavelength to Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice. It possesses an even looser plot (hinged solely upon the will-they-or-won’t-they between Gary and Alana) with eccentric characters and even zanier sequences pulled from the ether of history, reminiscence, and imagination. Fate brings these two people together and intervenes whenever their cute rapport reminds them of the not-so-wholesome details of a potential pairing. Jealousy never goes away, though. Not even when they both wish it would. Those few times they part only lead them closer together with a likeminded destructive behavior and shared desire to be seen as more than perhaps they themselves believe. She’s a conquest to him initially. He’s a puppy dog to her. Until, of course, something genuine clicks.
First comes the insanity, though. We’ve got a bit of showmanship in New York City opposite an established star in Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole‘s Lucille Ball stand-in). There’s a tense arrest scene, an out-of-nowhere drunken daredevil feat courtesy of Sean Penn‘s Jack Holden and Tom Waits‘ Rex Blau, the aforementioned unhinged Peters during an oil crisis, and just the oddity that is a teenager strolling into a happening restaurant like Tail o’ the Cock only to have the owner and bartender know him by name. Add a brief subplot pitting capitalism against integrity via a political campaign for Benny Safdie‘s Joel Wachs (that ultimately goes nowhere beyond its empathetic segue towards complicated love) and it never stops. You either plug into its breezily random nature or you don’t.
And that’s if you can also look past the central romance (it’s skeevy whichever way you look at it) and completely unnecessary racism. Goetzman probably had a story to tell about a local restaurant owner like John Michael Higgins‘ Jerry Frick who spoke English to his Japanese wife with an affected and in very poor taste Japanese “accent.” It was probably funny to laugh at too. To recreate that specific absurdity, however, takes a very deft hand to ensure the audience knows we’re laughing at Frick and not the exchange itself as a gag. I don’t think Anderson got it right here. I might have given a pass the first-time thanks to a knowing glance between Gary and his mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). Repeating it later is inexcusable.
Is that enough to derail the entire film? No. It’s merely more evidence of how uneven and messy this script proves. You must give Anderson credit for being able to string it all together in a coherent and mostly smooth fashion because the potential for whiplash is definitely present. Just the fact that Gary is changing hats from actor to salesman to cameraman to pinball entrepreneur at lightning pace while Alana dips her toe into his tornado before dipping out (and thus forking what had been a more or less singular focus for the third act) is enough to get your head spinning without the necessary connective tissue to bring it all together in the end. That is Anderson’s brilliance in many ways, though. His craft is impeccable.
I’m unfortunately not so certain this one moves beyond that level. It’s gorgeous with high production value and a very game cast ready to take the piss out of their industry and Anderson’s home that ultimately feels like a lo-fi companion piece to his friend Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Its revisionist scope is about color rather than plot, though. He’s creating these farcical caricatures to give his leads something to play off in a way that solidifies their burgeoning bond. Licorice Pizza is thus nothing without Hoffman and Haim and boy do they step up big in their first film roles. They’re endearingly charismatic, resonantly melancholic, and driven by an authentic chemistry of one-upmanship and affection. Just let him be eighteen.
courtesy of United Artists Releasing