Licorice Pizza: Tune in and Drift Away, by Scott Nye
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, possibly the best working American filmmaker, has now set two thirds of his films in the past. Like the Coen Brothers, he seems interested in dredging up different eras to explore American identity and how certain cultural trends shape its people then and now. While his films evince a fleeting affection with elements of those times – music, clothes, certain expressions and ways of speaking that have lost relevance – they are not at all what I would term nostalgia pieces. You watch a movie like There Will Be Blood or The Master, you (well, I anyway) come away terribly glad to live any other time. Even the grooviest of them – Inherent Vice or Boogie Nights – are also quick to turn up the sordid underbelly fueling the good times.
Licorice Pizza, his newest film, is a full-on nostalgia piece. It digs the clothes, the music, the culture, the people, the cars, the advertising; it wants to watch TV and eat bad food and while away the hours speculating about cultural changes we already know the outcome of. My personal taste for these sort of exercises has faded a bit. It’s nothing against the instinct, I get it, I love Dazed and Confused too. The fashions were cooler, the music was better, people had more time on their hands and more freedom in how to spend it (“In those days,” Orson Welles says, longingly, of a much much earlier time in The Magnificent Ambersons, “they had time for everything”). But there comes a point where one longs for more reflection on the contemporary world from the preeminent filmmakers of your time. We live in very volatile times, and unlike the late 60s into the early 70s, there aren’t a lot of major filmmakers trying to hash it out.
And so I spent quite a bit of Licorice Pizza a little suspicious of it. Anderson’s images (he is once again credited alongside Michael Bauman for the cinematography) are as compelling as ever, the way the camera seems to teeter and sway, as though carried by a breeze its subjects are generating, the light catching the spirit they emanate. The dialogue retains his talent for conversational wit, not hyper-composed jokes but little ways of expressing something that are clever and seem to come out of specific characters, not only their worldview and personality, but how that affects their momentary inability to be as well-thought-out as they’d like. And after awhile, all this stuff that Anderson is so good at just becomes the movie, and defines it far more than any nostalgia could.
Cooper Hoffman stars as Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old actor and entrepreneur who immediately falls in love with twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim) after meeting her assisting with school picture day. Aside from their ages, those character descriptions will remain permanently in flux throughout the film as Gary and Alana change jobs, direction, interests, and affections amidst the hyper-turbulent times of 1973. Gary’s steady career as an actor sends them colliding with famous figures – some real people, some based on real people, some entirely invented – and his attempts to catch the next big trend in business ensure they’re never bored.
All of this gives Anderson license to go pretty wild with his plotting – to the extent to which a film as freewheeling as this, with probably two dozen roles that make an often brief, but sizable impact, can be said to have a plot – not that it’s stopped him much before. Having little idea what comes next, being delighted by its unveiling, and having none of that driven by traditional methods of tension, is one of the central pleasures of an Anderson film. What makes his work so enduringly resonant is the way these disparate elements all coalesce to build character and emotion to some kind of conclusion, even if it’s far from any kind of ending you’ve quite seen before. It is not uncommon, especially with the work that has come since There Will Be Blood, for me to sit bewildered by it all only for something to decisively shift or settle in his finales that makes it all click.
Anderson has garnered some attention for the casts he’s able to command, in many instances the best of their generations, and with the bench filled out by Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, he clearly has the right numbers still at hand, but this is the first time since Punch Drunk-Love he’s working with main players who don’t have the traditional sort of experience to bring to bear on the kind of work he does. While Haim’s work as one of the frontwomen of their eponymous band certainly requires acting from time to time, this is not only her feature film, but also Hoffman’s. The latter, the only son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a collaborator on five of Anderson’s first six films, is almost uncannily similar to his iconic father in parts, but very much makes his own mark, his youthful energy and optimism a stark and glowing contrast to the shadow that could’ve overwhelmed him.
Haim is the film’s standout, remaining its most compelling subject even when more famous or overtly attention-garnering faces cruise through the screen. Alana is undoubtedly the least conciliatory, most abrasive, often pathetic female love interest to anchor a major studio film in years, offering few indications of why Gary or various other men continue to flock to her. Yet, to the film’s immense credit, we have little reason to second-guess their affections. Sometimes unpleasantness is its own charm. Haim is terrific at playing both the bashful exuberance accompanying all this sudden attention, as well as the utter defeat that routinely visits her when the affection doesn’t turn her life around. But she’s best when she’s just screaming at people, which she fortunately gets to quite a bit.
Other players – Benny Safdie, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Maya Rudoloph, Joseph Cross, Christine Ebersole, John Michael Higgins, Harriet Sansom Harris – will ring familiar bells to those who watch the edges of film and television for a spark of life, sparks that Anderson is happy to turn to infernos. They ensure that even if Anderson hadn’t cooked up a half-dozen killer scenarios to explore facets of his subject, each moment would have a breath of fresh air in it.
What is that subject? Young love, I suppose, or a crush when nothing in the world matters more than a crush. He hits on the burst of joy that comes with the smallest interaction and the crushing defeat with every ignored remark, the way you create activities just to be around them and sit around in utter terror that they won’t take part. And most especially, the sheer ecstasy when it all becomes right. After all…why not?