There seem to be three types of fans of Paul Thomas Anderson movies. There’s the obligatory, “everything he’s done is a masterpiece and I will hear nothing that contradicts this statement,” crowd. Then, 180 degrees from that position is the, “I haven’t liked a Paul Thomas Anderson movie since Boogie Nights,” people. (Which usually leads me to ask if they’ve seen Hard Eight, since that’s the only Paul Thomas Anderson movie not excluded, and the answer is almost always, “I haven’t seen it.”)
Then there’s the group where I kind of fall: Someone who loves Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and, especially, Punch Drunk Love. But with movies like There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread, I can watch those and realize, yes, these are all very well made “good movies.” But there’s something about each one, for different reasons, that keeps me at an arm’s distance and doesn’t quite want me to come in. (I didn’t forget Inherent Vice. A (still) very strange movie that I would have predicted, by now, would be something I “totally get” and I rewatch often. That … has not happened.)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is my personal favorite movie of his since Punch Drunk Love. This doesn’t mean I’m claiming it’s a better-made film than The Master or There Will Be Blood, but, emotionally, it let me in there like no other movie of his in the past 19 years. (I just gasped a bit realizing Punch Drunk Love is almost 20 years old.) And for the, “make something like Boogie Nights,” crowd, well, here’s a movie set in the 1970s with fun needle drops, so you will also be happy. (The, “everything Paul Thomas Anderson has done is a masterpiece,” contingent will also like this movie, by definition.)
Licorice Pizza, a hangout movie at heart, is set in the San Fernando Valley in the waning days of the Nixon administration. We meet both Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, whose father’s scene-stealing role in Hard Eight led to a five-film collaboration) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) at Gary’s high school picture day. Gary is a student. Alana is a photographer’s assistant and is, well, about 10 years older than Gary. Alana is not interested in Gary, but he feels the opposite and what forms is one of those strange relationships that can only happen around that age where one person is madly in love with the other, and the other is amused enough by it all to keep hanging out because there’s nothing better to do anyway.
I suspect, someday, there will be double features of Licorice Pizza and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Okay, sure, a lot of movies use Hollywood as a backdrop, but both of these particular films have a way of inter-splicing real-life personalities from that era into the narrative. (Gary is a young actor on a Lucile Ball situation comedy and, after crossing her at a publicity event, he feels her full wrath. Also, it’s kind of weird we are getting two portrayals of Lucille Ball within weeks of each other.) And Gary and Alana go on a series of adventures as all these weirdos come in and out of the movie, with the constant always being just these two, which creates a really good effect of presenting just how important their relationship is to each other without having to consistently remind us of that fact. No matter what happens, they are a constant.
You see, Gary thinks of himself as an entrepreneur. And after his dust-up with Lucile Ball, he finds himself laying on a waterbed in a mattress store and is promised that waterbeds would be the wave of the future. (As it turns out, I love Paul Thomas Anderson movies that involve mattress stores. Also, speaking of waterbeds, my roommate in college had a waterbed. And because it was so heavy he, “had to have the downstairs bedroom, you know, because my waterbed is so heavy.” Which also happened to be the best bedroom in the duplex. What a scam. Anyway, I irrationally hate waterbeds.) Soon after, Gary and Alana launch a waterbed company that has them driving around Los Angeles in an old delivery truck, meeting all sorts of characters – including Bradly Cooper’s Jon Peters, who is pure chaos.
It’s difficult to segue into the scenes I want to write about because the charming nature of this movie is, one moment, Gary and Alana are running a waterbed company and then, kind of out of the blue, Alana is auditioning for a movie role starring opposite an actor named Jack Holden, played by Sean Penn. (Which is, perhaps, the best stand-in name ever for a character based on a real actor, in this case, William Holden. It’s like having a character based on Robert De Niro and naming him “Jonathan De Niro.”) But it did feel like Anderson just wanted to have a 15-minute scene with, as Anderson said in a post-movie Q&A, his favorite actor. And that’s a big part of the charm of Licorice Pizza.
It’s funny that Anderson said they had no idea what to even call this movie. That makes a lot of sense. (Anderson said the title is based on an LA record store and the record store got its name from an Abbot and Costello joke about how they can sell a bunch of records that nobody wants as licorice pizza.) It’s almost an impossible movie to describe if someone simply asks, “So, what’s the plot?” In the third act, the movie gets into city politics when Alana starts working for Joel Wachs, the longtime city councilman (played by Benny Safdie, who is great) who, at that time, was still hiding the fact he’s gay and, in the movie, uses Alana to throw people trying to prove that fact off the scent.
The plot of this movie doesn’t matter because it barely has one, even though it’s incredibly entertaining. Part of me thinks Anderson saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and thought, huh, yeah, I can do something like that. And, frankly, if all our current upper echelon filmmakers want to try their hand at movies like this, I’m all for it. But, in the end, this is a movie with heart and emotion. Something Anderson hasn’t seemed too interested in over the last 19 years. Maybe it got all stored up in there, somewhere, and he had to let it all out. Maybe it forced its way out. (Is there a way to use the word “vomit” in a positive way?) Regardless, what emerged was Licorice Pizza.
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