The formative years of my love for film met at a crossroad of Paul Thomas Anderson’s rising star. The success of Sydney/Hard Eight that led to the ground breaking success of Boogie Nights hit just as I was about to graduate high school and enter into film school, myself. I was front and center at every PTA release, watching as he’d pivot his style and storytelling just as her perfected it in one form. With his 9th feature full-length film, Anderson has found a way to meld all the unique styles of his previous works into one lovingly joyful look of growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 70s.
While offering grooming supplies to high schoolers as they line up for their class pictures Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is subject to the “smooth moves” of one of the students, Gary Valentine. Though their is a considerable age difference between the two with Alana in her mid 20’s and Gary just a 15, Gary’s clever advances pique Alana’s interest and she agrees to meet him for dinner. And when Gary, who has been a child star in films and TV needs a chaperone for a trip to New York for a gig, Alana happy enough to step in and help. Soon the two find themselves in business together as Gary’s big ideas and big dreams begin to pay off. But in the background of all their escapades are the trappings of any relationship as the two guide their ways through life and love.
At its heart, Licorice Pizza is a fun, nostalgic look at a very specific time, in a very specific place in the world that will be known to only those who lived through it. But Anderson effortlessly brings in the audience this world to the audience on a platter. You feel as if you’ve known these people, known these locations and events as if they were your own life experiences. Its less glossy than the fueled up life of Boogie Nights, but just as rich and stylistic.
Up to a point you could look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s career in sections. Sydney/Hard Eight was a jumping off point that became fleshed out with Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Two grandiose stories punctuated by anamorphic whip pans and feverish build ups. Then the elbow move of Punch Drunk Love, a short, weirdos-in-love story (to be brief about it). Next, the deep, quiet, stunning character study films with There Will Be Blood and The Master followed by another sharp turn into Inherent Vice and The Phantom Thread. Bits and pieces of each of these cinematic experiences meld together into the final product. Licorice Pizza is a film of its own, but the collected works of PTA can be felt in the DNA. Even Jonny Greenwood’s score harkens back to the Jon Brion work that punctuated Anderson’s earlier films.
Much of the story, not meant to be a biopic, are actually drawn from the life of Gary Goetzman. Goetzman who was a child actor himself before later becoming producing partners with Tom Hanks had a history of starting the same business and coming up with the same schemes as Gary Valentine. Having that base of reality to the events of the film help bring a certain credence to the story, even as it spins into out-of-control situations that seem too crazy to be real. Though, one might think Goetzman may reasonable embellish some elements of his own life when recanting his past to others…knowing he really did deliver a water bed to Jon Peters, just make the outrageous portrayal from Bradley Cooper as Peters seem all the more real.
There are wonderful performances brought in by some classic talent in the form of Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and others (including a blink and you’ll miss it John C. Reilly cameo), Licorice Pizza is carried by two actors in their first feature film roles. Gary is portrayed by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Paul Thomas Anderson regular; Philip Seymour Hoffman. Alana Haim is known for her work in the band Haim. The all woman group made up of Alana and her sisters, Este and Danielle (who also appear in the film as Alana’s sisters and her parents also play her parents in the film), whom have had a few music videos directed by PTA.
Some people might say it was a gamble to cast two first timers to carry a film by a director who could pluck any talent he wants from a pool of “trusted” talent. But the chemistry and foolish innocence of Gary and Alana permeate from Hoffman and Haim as every turn that by the time the credits roll, you’ll think that no one else could have played these roles. It felt more like Anderson built a time machine, went to 1973 and filmed two subjects before jumping back to the present and let the world see it for themselves.
From the styles, to the music, to the technical proficiency–Paul Thomas Anderson has found a way to reach back into his filmography to create something new out of his classic hits while still being innovative, smart, and pleasing.
Final Grade: A-