Licorice Pizza is a whimsically inspired title for this California pastoral from the bright west coast 1970s. It’s the name of a now-defunct SoCal record shop chain, according to writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Like Anthony Burgess’ alleged cockney phrase “Queer as a clockwork orange,” I was hoping he was making it up. However, this is not the case. Though the film itself veers between truth and nostalgic fantasy, it actually occur.
This is a love tale set in 1973 (Erich Segal’s book is skillfully positioned in one shot), yet it’s much too deep and complex to be classified as “coming-of-age.” A delighted 15-year-old kid meets a bored 25-year-old lady who works as a photographer’s assistant shooting shots for the high-school yearbook.
When this boy begins hitting on her and she realizes she is interested in him, she is amused, intrigued, and unhappy in equal measure.
Anderson turns his two rookies into movie stars. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is frighteningly confident as Gary Valentine, a heavy-set boy with scaly skin whose child-actor career in TV and movies is coming to an end, so he’s turning his numerous side-hustles into the main event, operating his own cockamamie waterbed firm.
Alana Haim, of the pop band Haim (for whom Anderson has directed videos), is fantastic as the perpetually irritated Alana Kane, a young woman with Barbra Streisand’s beauty and charisma; perhaps fitting, given that Streisand’s notoriously irritable onetime boyfriend Jon Peters is played by Bradley Cooper in a cameo role as one of Gary’s dissatisfied waterbed customers.
Gary and Alana’s relationship, if it is love, does not flow smoothly. Gary’s heart is broken when Alana holds hands with another young actress who is barely older than he is; Gary enrages Alana by making advances on a girl his own age.
Alana retaliates by flirting with aging movie star Jack Holden (Sean Penn), who is probably modeled on William Holden (why not simply call him William Holden?) and then uptight political contender Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). But we all know where this is going, even if we can’t believe it.
And this hypnotically beautiful, humorous, romantic film glides from scene to scene, character to character, and setpiece to setpiece with total skill. As if on a waterbed, you float and ripple around it. Every casual line, kiss, car trip, set-up, and joke, on the other hand, is a thrill.
Gary’s character, according to Anderson, is based partially on Gary Goetzman, a former child actor who went on to become Tom Hanks’ producing partner, and partly on a boy he saw in high school in 2001 attempting to talk with an older lady. In 1973, why did he shift the story? Well, he’s great at conjuring up that period; maybe a reference to Harold and Maude is meant, but the closest thing to a film citation is a scene from Taxi Driver that’s strangely similar to the political campaign office scenes.
Could it be, though, that Anderson has selected the 1970s for the same reason that Jonathan Franzen picked that decade for his new book Crossroads? It’s simpler to explore questions of transgressive love and sex in the correct tone of forgiving romantic adventure without getting mired down in 21st-century gender politics if you set your novel in the disillusioned-yet-still-groovy 1970s.
Maybe. In addition, the ironic 1970s may make it easier to get away with the perennial male dream of an adolescent guy seducing an older lady (yeah right). The setting certainly allows characters to drive very, very fast to places where they drink very, very large amounts of alcohol: in fact, the driving scenes are very similar to those in Quentin Tarantino’s LA-period film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Anderson’s freaky Jon Peters smashing up cars instead of Tarantino’s crazy Charlie Manson.
Gary and Alana also had a cinephile fetish moment when they end themselves in front of a movie theater sign promoting Live and Let Die (although Edgar Wright got there first with his vision of the Thunderball premiere in Last Night in Soho). There are jukebox smashes of Paul McCartney’s Let Me Roll It and David Bowie’s Life on Mars, and we do witness LAPD officers beating up the wrong man in this film: Gary.
This is lighter and brighter than earlier Anderson films; take out the porn and, yes, the sex from Boogie Nights, and you’ve got something near; take out the metaphysical dread from Inherent Vice, and you’ve got something close, too. I’ll be cutting myself another piece of this delicious film very soon.