In the world of cinephiles and movie critics, a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie is kind of a big deal. As with other seasoned filmmakers with well-defined styles (think Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, etc.), PTA (as his fans affectionately call him) incites a high level of enthusiasm among his tight-knit faithful. A quick gander at the ever vocal Film Twitter and you’ll get a good sense of what I mean.
In what may be deemed sacrilege by some (friends of mine included), I’ve always been lukewarm on Anderson’s body of work. To his credit, I loved his last film, 2017’s “Phantom Thread”. And 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” remains one of my favorite movies of all time. But several of his other features, including the beloved “Boogie Nights”, “The Master”, and (to a lesser degree) “Inherent Vice”, are well made movies with enough cracks to leave themselves open to some criticism.
Now four years since his last film we get “Licorice Pizza”, a coming of age dramedy (I hate that word, but it fits) set in Anderson’s old stomping ground, the San Fernando Valley. Considering my history with PTA’s work, I went into our press screening wondering where his latest would land with me. To be honest, I’m still trying to sort that out.
Right off the bat you can’t help but notice its almost startling change of pace from the bulk of Anderson’s other films. This one’s breezy, free-spirited, and dare I say tender (a word rarely associated with PTA’s movies). At the same time, it’s not a movie without its issues including one big one that it mostly avoids until it doesn’t. More on that in a moment.
The film’s quirky title is taken from a former chain of Southern California record shops that were popular in the ’70s and ’80s. You won’t find a reference to them anywhere in the movie. No one utters the words “licorice” or “pizza” at any point. But according to Anderson, the two words together capture the vibe of his film. He’s not wrong.
The entire story (written by Anderson) revolves around the relationship between 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, the son of Anderson favorite the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The movie opens with the two meeting at Gary’s school. He’s a student and she’s an assistant with a photography business on campus to shoot class pictures. Alana immediately catches Gary’s eye, and he’s certain he’s met the girl he’ll one day marry.
Anderson doesn’t put much effort into bringing the two together. Basically they meet at the school, Gary turns on the charm, Alana gets a kick out of him, he asks her to meet him at his favorite restaurant for a date, she laughs him off reasonably noting their age difference, and then she shows up anyway without much of an explanation why. From there, the rest of the movie plays out like ’The Adventures of Gary and Alana’, highlighting their various ups and downs both in business and in their fun-to-borderline queasy relationship.
That may sound like a slight, but I actually enjoyed Anderson’s free-wheeling storytelling. He bounces his two charismatic leads from one escapade to the next, showing their journey together yet also giving each time on the own. The film’s best scenes are when Hoffman and Haim share the screen. We see their flirty enthusiasm as they start up their own waterbed enterprise (older readers will remember that craze), and in my favorite sequence involving a movers truck, no gas, and an unhinged Bradley Cooper. All show a playful side to PTA‘s storytelling that gives the movie its heart.
But I also like that Anderson explores how their significant age difference sometimes pulls them apart. It creates a needed tension although it sometimes sends the story into less interesting directions. Such as Alana’s sudden zeal to work on a young councilman’s mayoral campaign and Gary’s foray into the freshly legalized pinball business. There’s nothing wrong with those storylines themselves. In fact they give PTA a chance to play around in his early 70s setting (which he exquisitely recreates on screen). They’re just hampered by a surprising lack of narrative detail – an issue that pops up throughout the movie.
For instance, how is a 15-year-old able to open up a waterbed store and pinball arcade seemingly on a whim (yes, there are references to him being a hustler and having a keen business sense, but come on)? Or what about Alana’s funny quirk of repeating everything twice which suddenly vanishes after a couple of early scenes. Taken by themselves, these are all little things. But when taken together they become more noticeable.
But then there’s the bigger more nagging issue – the budding romance between a 25-year-old and a 15-year-old. Anderson tries to have it both ways. There’s clearly a line he wants to straddle. But while he succeeds in hugging it for most of the way, he ends up crossing it on a couple of glaring occasions. Some may appeal to the honesty of Anderson’s depiction of Alana and Hary’s relationship and there’s truth to that defense. But as a father of two kids who fit right into that younger age range, I can tell you how I feel as a parent. The movie’s lack of conviction is a bit troubling.
“Licorice Pizza” won’t be for everyone. It’s a movie that doesn’t really go anywhere and it doesn’t have all that much to say. It’s more of an easygoing trip down memory lane, full of nostalgic callbacks and needle drops. But for some, their enjoyment may ultimately come down to their ability to overlook the ickiness that simmers underneath the central relationship. I’m guessing PTA will mostly get a pass (we tend to do that with filmmakers we really admire). But there’s enough there worth wrestling with, even if the movie never really does. “Licorice Pizza” is now showing in limited release and opens wide on December 25th.