It takes place in a dreamy 1973 world of bared midriffs and swinging hair, failures and pretenders, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy, fitfully wonderful caper “Licorice Pizza.” It takes place in Encino, a Los Angeles suburb in the shadow of Hollywood that has been the setting for films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Boogie Nights,” Anderson’s breakthrough feature about an aspiring pornographic star’s ascent to popularity. When it comes to “Licorice Pizza,” which is a coming-of-age romance in which no one grows up, there is DNA from both old and new Hollywood.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), another typical striver, is the film’s implausible young hero. Gary is a 15-year-old kid entertainer who has reached the pinnacle of teenage awkwardness and is ageing out of his professional specialty.
Anderson always maintains a sense of distance from his characters, allowing you to see their unadorned imperfections, which may be both inconsequential and defining in their development. He loves them with the passion that any director would have for them. However, his fondness for Gary is unique, as extravagant as that of a spoilt child, and his enthusiasm for the character is a piece of the warm nostalgic glow that he injects into “Licorice Pizza,” blunting its edges and diminishing the overall impact of the picture as a result.
Even if Gary outstays his welcome, this volatility is a good fit for the show’s freewheeling, episodic format. High-school lads are preening in a washroom as long lines of kids snake out of the building as the film starts on picture day. An amusingly portentous cherry bomb bursts in a toilet, and Gary is soon smitten with Alana (Alana Haim, the rock singer), who is working as an assistant for a weirdo who is photographing the kids.
Anderson maintains a wonderful flow with the camera and the characters as they go on tiny and huge excursions of various intrigue. Gary’s entrepreneurial hustle, which takes him all across the nabe and occasionally beyond, is the catalyst for the majority of these opportunities. A viciously humorous stand-in for Lucille Ball (Christine Ebersole) threatens to castrate him in a play where he upstages her. He wanders into pubs and restaurants, stores and audition rooms, and shouts out a melody (not really, but the rage is real). He engages in a jousting match with his adversary (Skyler Gisondo), a little smoothie who slips into his cups like Dean Martin, which is as sleazy and stupid as it sounds. As well, Gary is busted, launches a few enterprises, flees from the authorities, and eventually finds himself in Alana’s arms, which stay open as consistently as a late-night cafe.
Alana decides to go on a date with Gary for reasons that are only known to her. This marks the beginning of a relationship that makes no sense, but one that Anderson really loves. She is perhaps ten years older than Gary, if not more. In spite of his young age and height, he has a swagger and a belly protruding over his belt that suggest the potential used car salesman he may one day be. However, he is still a child. “Do you think it’s odd,” Alana inquires of a buddy while puffing on a joint, “that I spend so much time with Gary and his pals all of the time?”
While Anderson asks a lot of questions of Haim, she obliges. These scenes are in keeping with some of the more irritating clichés that he incorporates, much as a studio hack may have done back in the day while having a witless laugh in his voice.
These scenes are cheap and stupid, and they add nothing to a film that throws a great deal at the audience in an alternating scattershot and lasered effect: the OPEC oil crisis, water beds, the silhouette of palm trees against a night sky, and the kind of stars who no longer shine brightly are just a few examples. When it comes to living in a company town like Los Angeles, Anderson does an excellent job of capturing what it’s like to be in the business, appear to be in the business, or want to be in the business, and how everyone, whether it’s Gary or the faded and midlevel stars idling in the neighbourhood joint, is clinging to Hollywood and its promise. There, Sean Penn bursts in the door as an old-school studio heiress, as Tom Waits and his cohorts smile on the sidelines.
The whole time, Alana remains enraged and enraged, continuously lighting up Gary and the picture with a brightness comparable to Fourth of July fireworks, even as the tale sags and veers and collects and loses pace here and there. There are times when Alana isn’t sure what to do with herself other than chase after her, and it’s a particular disappointment that, although Anderson makes her an object of love and passion, he neglects to explore her sexual desire in any depth. Alana may be missing, but she is not dead, just the opposite in fact.
Alana is deserving of better, for God’s sake! Even the Hollywood producer based on the real-life Jon Peters (played by the amazing Bradley Cooper) is well aware of it (well, maybe not Gary…). A kilo of cocaine (presumably) up his nose, Peters comes after Gary begins a water bed business, resplendently fuzzed with a white shirt framing his chest hair and a white shirt framing his chest hair. The business is a lengthy and not very interesting one, but Peters, who is now seeing Barbra Streisand, is desperate for a bed, and he wants it soon.