Licorice Pizza (2021)

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

You know, you’d think a love story where one partner is underage would get the person who wrote it canceled, but not so for Paul Thomas Anderson, who has written and directed an all-time great winding romance between a 15-year old boy and a woman 10 years his senior. 

“But how,” you say “isn’t it gross and Lolita-esque, even if the genders are swapped?” Well, if your characters are so well-defined, so well-built, their relationship so organically developed, and the relationship isn’t some weird act of fetishization, then who cares.

Because in Anderson’s film, unrolling in early-70s Southern California, people make moves, put up fronts, and never break out of that groove, either too scared or oblivious to stop dancing to the same old song. It’s a decade of pretense, of shmarmers, of aggressive cads and blowhards, and the fresh romantic air at the heart of Licorice Pizza is made all the more invigorating by the sweat-stained funk of bad romance that surrounds it. 

There’s a man who does a horrific “impression” to talk to his Asian wife, whom he later switches for a different woman as if he switched shoes. The angriest man in Hollywood is dating Barbara Streisand. A high profile public figure lives unhappily in the closet. Set against this, the kids are all right. 

What’s really Anderson’s forte is his knack for extensive character studies, like Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Reynolds Woodcock in The Phantom Thread or Lancaster Dodd in The Master, and in Gary Valentine, he’s put together another perfectly shaped origami crane of a person, a charismatic and grandiose man-to-be who straddles the world in his own particular way, but with a certain innocence at his core. 

A happy boy, a gregarious boy, and despite his age-conforming quest to touch a boob or two, an innocent boy. Eight years ago, Philip Seymour Hoffman died and left the world a worse place. It also meant Anderson was without one of his steady collaborators, but in Hoffman’s son, Cooper, lightning strikes twice, as he already stands on his own with his performance as Gary, delivering the same gravitational pull on the lens, but with his own buoyancy. His giddy boy-prince energy matched with his overgrown boy physique (Hoffman’s really 19, but his size on a 15-year old character is startling) is comedic gold on its own and compelling like no other. 

He’s play-acting at adulthood, and so one’s not surprised when he starts hitting hard on Alana, naturally out of his league by the simple virtue that she’s not in high school, and hasn’t been for a good while. A school photographer’s assistant, surly malaise radiates off her, however, and call it the attraction of opposites, but someone like that could use a person in their life who sees everything as an opportunity. 

Hoffman’s debut is one for the ages, which is almost a shame for Alana Haim, musician known from the band of the same name, who also makes her big screen debut. As an ornery twenty-something spinning her wheels and unsure of where she’s headed, a courting 15-year old is the last thing she needs, and her self-grudging entry into the Valentine empire should resonate with anyone who’s ever tried to navigate life at that age and be frustrated when they stop to check the receipts. 

Because the wider story of Licorice Pizza, is of love’s pitfalls, and Anderson arranges his film like a massive song-and-dance number where the central duet’s slow circling of each other is accented by extravagant acts on the perimeter. 

As great as Anderson is at carefully building the nuances of his central characters, he’s also terrific at throwing in the supporting cast whose only job is to maximize the singular energy their characters represent. Bradley Cooper is an absolute riot as Jon Peters, Barbara Streisand’s then-boyfriend, a coked-up psycho coozhound who, literally, has no chill, threatening, schmoozing, chatting up, and fighting with the same relentless energy (and sometimes within the same train of throught). 

Other tragic lovers orbit Gary and Alana, and each new dramatic constellation they offer is delivered with panache and some virtuoso writing, and it’s so easy to get swept away by the performances that you forget the exacting work that Anderson and cinematographer Michael Bauman does behind the camera. 

That’s perhaps both Anderson’s greatest gift and curse – how complete he is as a creative with both pen and picture, because it all comes together so beautifully in Licorice Pizza, that nothing stands out from the pack, offering across-the-board excellence from the writing, to how it’s delivered, to how it’s presented. A simple, if uncanny, love story at its center, but a dazzling arrangement around it taking you on a merry-go-round with a fat line drawn underneath the merry. A great film in every meaning of the word. 

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