Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature-length movie, Licorice Pizza, falls nothing short of a masterpiece label. The film manages to combine the surreal humour of Punch Drunk Love with the setting of Boogie Nights, and through Anderson calling on his family and friends, the director creates a heady evocation of the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Licorice Pizza is a culmination of everything that came before it in Anderson’s filmography, and in terms of aesthetic and spirit, the nods to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Graffiti are clear.
The film is charged by the unrelenting fast-paced, absurd narrative that Punch Drunk Love mastered. There’s a series of separate subplots that unfold across the film’s 133 minutes run-time, and they each have a knock-on effect on the overall story. Some detractors, who, one might add, are skewed in their understanding of the film, may posit that the Licorice Pizza isn’t really about anything at all, that, instead, the movie is effectively purposeless — but therein lies precisely the point. The haphazard nature of life is examined within Anderson’s creation, and through the protagonist’s chance meeting, we follow them on a bizarre adventure in which they come to understand one another.
At the beginning of the film, the successful child actor, 15-year-old Gary Valentine who is played by the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cooper, asks out 25-year-old photography assistant, Alana Kane, played by musician Alana Haim. The overconfident and grounded Valentine is coming to the end of his career as a child actor with his developing body pushing him toward adulthood, and he presents the foil to Kane, who is in her mid-20s and struggling to find direction in life. He pesters her into going for dinner, and as they walk through the open doorway at the back of the school hall, which is obscured by a bright white light, the story begins.
It’s clear what Anderson intended with his two protagonists walking off into the light, as through the many ups and downs that they experience, by the end of the film, they’re both in a better place than where they started. A little while later, there’s the scene in which they’re having dinner, and the sickeningly self-confident Valentine tells the unphased Kane: “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a song and dance man”. This brilliant paradox perfectly displays the kind of frustration and lofty ideas teenagers have. They’re some parts child and some parts adult, and to all intents and purposes, Valentine is undoubtedly a man-child.
The scene in which Alana chaperones him to New York in a bid to appear in a variety show with Lucy Doolittle hilariously reflects this notion. Valentine is singing and dancing around in the campest, most ’70s of ways with his ensemble, but towers above the rest of them. After this, Valentine becomes more of a man and launches a waterbed business with the money previously earned from his acting endeavours. Pushing their relationship to new lengths, he then hires Kane as an employee.
Interestingly, Valentine’s arc was largely based on that of Anderson’s friend, Gary Goetzman, who himself was a child actor. Goetzman appeared in films such as Yours, Mine and Ours, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then started a waterbed company and pinball arcade. With that, having the OPEC oil crisis running in the background is an effective plot device in showing just how ridiculous the early ’70s were, and just how flawed the modern reliance on oil was. The lessons to be learnt from the oil crisis are still as pertinent today as they were back then.
Valentine’s waterbed business opens up new doors, such as delivering the product to the house of Jon Peters. The film producer, played by Bradley Cooper, is an overexaggerated version of the real-life Jon Peters. Valentine, responding to his manic and overly macho display, blossoms into the man he showed flecks of at the inception. The scene where Peters makes Valentine say ‘Streisand’ over and over until he pronounces it right is a genius moment of writing.
Aside from Peters, there’s nods to a whole host of other real-life characters. There’s Sean Penn who plays a William Holden-esque character, Benny Safdie as real-life politician Joel Wachs, John Michael Higgins plays Jerry Frick, a Los Angeles businessman who opened the Mikado Hotel and restaurant in 1963, and John C. Reilly who portrays Fred Gwynne, an actor who played the role of Herman Munster. Furthermore, Alana’s family is played by the real-life Haim family in what is a masterstroke of casting. It is these figures that give the film an organic nature that confirms Anderson as one of the most accomplished period filmmakers of contemporary cinema.
Typically Anderson, the way the cinematography and score work symbiotically is an incredible feat. Unsurprisingly, longtime collaborator Jonny Greenwood’s score is borderline perfect, and the soundtrack that he and Anderson put together features takes from Wings, David Bowie and Taj Mahal.
Utilising bright colours and shot 35mm, you be forgiven for thinking it was genuinely filmed in the ’70s. There’s a lot to be said for the rookie nature of both Haim and Hoffman as actors. Again, this gives the film and characters a natural, uncontrived essence that makes the wholesome nature of the story so palpable. When watching, I could see that those who were of the age who were around in 1973 had a glisten in their eye. It’s nostalgic, ridiculous and heartwarming, and makes a strong claim for being one of Anderson’s best.