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Licorice Pizza
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Soggy Bottom Boys, Girls And Things"
5 stars

I don’t think that there is anyone out there who would disagree too strenuously if I were to assert that 2021 has pretty much been a king-hell bummer from its very first days to its waning moments. Not surprisingly, that darkness has managed to manifest itself in the films that have come out during that time as well. I recently published my list of the 10 best films of the year and, for the most part, they happen to be a fairly bleak collection of titles—my list included examples of two of the most normally heedless types of movies, the musical (“Annette”) and the screwball comedy (“Shiva Baby”), and even they were particularly grim takes on those genres. Therefore, I suppose it only makes sense that just as 2021 is finally coming to a blessed close and with the theatrical experience once again being threatened by the ongoing pandemic, the most utterly beguiling American film of the year is only now arriving in the form of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza.” Anderson has, of course, been responsible for some of the most astonishing films of recent years—“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Inherent Vice” and “Phantom Thread” among them—and this one deserves consideration as one of his best.

Set in the San Fernando Valley circa 1973, “Licorice Pizza” kicks off as so many other films have done in the past—with the two central characters, one male and the other female, meeting for the first time and developing an instant rapport—but never quite in the manner seen here. He is Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a guy who is brimming with such self-confidence that when he first sees Alana Kane (Alana Haim), he thinks nothing of just walking over to her and striking up a conversation that finds him asking her out to dinner in about two minutes tops. At first, she rebuffs him for a very good reason that we will get to in a moment but as their conversation continues, there is something about his sheer bravado that intrigues her and that night, despite any number of misgivings, she turns up to meet him at Tail of the Cock, the kind of old school place where the maitre’d knows the names of all the regulars, including Gary.

Now to the aforementioned very good reason for both Alana’s initial dismissal and her eventual curiosity. Gary is 15 years old, Alana is 25 and their initial meeting comes because she is working a dead-end job as an assistant to the lecherous photographer who is taking class photos at Gary’s high school that day. I know what you are thinking—presumably the same thing that others have taken to that most even-handed of mediums, the Internet, to register their distaste over (in most cases without actually seeing the film)—so let me assure you right here and now that “Licorice Pizza” is not the kind of sleazy raunchfest that you may be thinking it to be. Oh sure, Gary is undeniably attracted to her in the way that certain 15-year-old boys are to any female that crosses their paths but it is soon clear that this is not just another precocious teenager whose hormones have kicked into overdrive. As for Alana, she lays down the line pretty quickly that nothing is going to happen between them but sees something in his own drive to prove himself in the adult world that mirrors her own desire to get out of the rut that she is in with her bummer job and living at home with her parents and two older sisters (played by Haim’s real-life parents, Moti and Donna, and sisters Danielle and Esti). Rather than a retro take on the likes of the old Skinemax classic “My Tutor,” the story shows how the friendship between the two deepens and evolves as each proves to be exactly the kind of person the other needs at that point in life, even if they don’t always recognize it at the time.

As the story begins, Gary is a hard-working child actor but has hit that awkward age where he is too old for the kid roles that he is up for (though casting directors still let him read, perhaps realizing it is easier to do that than to try to dissuade him) but too young for actual grown-up parts. Nevertheless, he is still teeming with ambition and energy and one day, he comes across that most fantastical of new creations of the era—the water bed—and, like so many young men at the time, he is struck by the possibilities that it inspires in his mind. Unlike most of those other young men, his inspiration is to form his own company and sell them, recruiting a number of friends, including Alana, to help him with the venture. Although the name of the company, Soggy Bottoms, is dubious at best, the venture is successful enough to lead to opening a waterbed store. While Gary is doing the schmoozing and glad-handing required, Alana handles more of the business side of things and finds herself thriving in ways that eventually lead her to tackle things that she might have never allowed herself to dream of before, ranging from a stab at her own acting career to working as an assistant to an ambitious young mayoral candidate (Benny Safdie).

On the surface, the plot of “Licorice Pizza” may sound slightly absurd (though it is said to have been inspired in part by the youthful exploits of real-life producer Gary Goetzman) but straightforward narrative has never been something that Anderson has ever been particularly interested in as a filmmaker. He is more interested in the odd and curious ways in which seemingly disparate elements end up bouncing off of each other in fascinating and unpredictable ways and that is certainly the case here from everything from the developing relationship between Gary and Alana to the way in which something as major as the oil crisis of the time ends up affecting their business. What is so great about this is that it means that there is never the sensation that you are ever watching a scene that exists simply to move the plot along from point A to point B—every moment is instead alive with a sense of possibility and curiosity that you cannot help but respond to with a growing feeling of excitement over the fact that you have no idea where Anderson will take you next. What is also interesting about this is that even though the film is essentially sunny and cheerful in nature, there is still a tension that runs through it throughout that suggests that things could go sideways in a hurry.

This combination of excitement, curiosity and unease is especially on display during the two most bravura extended set pieces in the film. In the first, the relationship between Gary and Alana is at a low point and this leads to them both turning up at the Tail of the Cock one night with different people—Gary with a couple of high school girls and Alana with Jack Holden (Sean Penn), a grizzled, hard-drinking movie star clearly meant to suggest William Holden whom she has auditioned for earlier that day. While they each try to make the other jealous by flaunting the attentions of their new partners, things take a turn with the arrival of an old drinking buddy of Jack’s (Tom Waits) who immediately shepherds everyone in the restaurant out to the adjacent golf course so that Jack can drunkenly recreate one of the most famous moments from one of his old movies with Alana unsuspectingly along for the ride. The whole scene is a marvel in the way that it segues from droll comedy to surreal spectacle to nail-biting tension with such deftness that you hardly notice and the final payoff is a moment so perfect that you almost want to cheer when you see it.

This sequence would have been the highlight of most ordinary movies—hell, the highlight of most ordinary directorial careers—but Anderson manages to top himself a little while longer with one that is even more audacious in both conception and execution. One day, Gary, Alana and a crew of their young friends load up in a giant panel truck to deliver and install a water bed to a house high in the hills, only to discover that the place belongs to none other than Barbra Streisand. She isn’t there but her lover, abrasive former hairdresser Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) is and before leaving to meet her for a movie date, he goes off on a coke-fueled rant to Gary about his wealth and power, his famous girlfriend and how he will destroy Gary’s entire family before his eyes if anything happens to his house while the bed is being installed before taking off. Suitably outraged, Gary and Alana get some measure of revenge for this before taking off in the truck and that is when things begin to develop in ways that you will have to discover for yourself. Suffice it to say, the ways in which things develop are entire unpredictable and supply not only some of the biggest laughs to be found in a movie this year and arguably the most intense truck-based thrills since the bridge-crossing sequence in “Sorcerer.” In a career that is already chock-full of such bravura set pieces—the bungled robbery in “Boogie Nights,” the cast of “Magnolia” suddenly bursting into song,” the New Year’s Eve party in “Phantom Thread”—this one may be Anderson’s most incredible to date, if only because it automatically makes you want to see the never-better Cooper take his incredible Peters riff and base an entire biopic around it.

And yet, for all of Anderson’s directorial flourishes, the most genuinely astonishing thing about “Licorice Pizza” is that even though he is at a point in his career when most of the biggest actors around would happily drop everything in order to appear in one of his films because of the quality of the material and the prestige that they will presumably bring, he has elected this time to base the entire success of a project around the performances of two people who have never acted before professionally. This is an extraordinary gamble and it pays off beautifully here. Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who worked with Anderson several times during his career and there are times when the resemblance between the two is uncanny to the point where it could be argued that this film is actually a sort-of origin story for the character that the elder Hoffman played in Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” That said, it is a great performance in which he effortlessly captures both the cheeky precociousness of Gary in his youth and the ways in which he grows and matures under the influence of Alana in ways that are hilarious, heartbreaking and compulsively watchable throughout.

As good as Hoffman is—and he is great—the performance of both the film and the year is the one given by Haim. She is, of course, better known as one-third of the popular rock trio of the same name that she formed with her sisters but based on her work here, she could easily bail out on the day job (not that I would want that to happen) and pursue acting full-time because her work here is incredible. In many cases when a musical personality takes a stab at acting, especially in a role that does not involve any musical aspects, the results can be off as they don’t always manage to moderate the performance approach required to reach the furtherest rows of an arena to the far more intimate confines of a movie set. Haim, on the other hand, is such a natural before the camera that you would think that she had been acting all her life. At the same time, she has arguably the most complicated role in the film and never once hits a false note as she pulls off one spectacular scene after another from charting her evolving feelings towards Gary (the moment when she sees him with a girl his age and finds herself feeling unexpectedly jealous is especially moving) and her own growth as a person.

“Licorice Pizza” is the kind of film that you almost have to see twice in order to fully appreciate it—the first time to be knocked out by the wild picaresque journey Anderson takes you on and the second to realize just how precisely conceived and executed the whole thing is. Beautifully constructed, filled with great performances across the board and driven by a killer collection of period tunes, there is not a single boring or predictable moment to be had during its running time. This is the kind of idiosyncratic gem that has become increasingly rare in American cinema and when it gets to its genuinely glorious final moments, they are enough to restore your faith in the power of the movies.

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originally posted: 12/23/21 05:47:43
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