Film: Licorice Pizza
Principal cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Benny Safdie
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running time: 2 hrs 14 mins
Where to watch: In theatres
To begin with, I must apologise for not having reviewed this slice of attuned affability earlier; I had to skip the weekend, because my frugality and the seemingly lax timeframe within which I could write this combined to make the ticket of the one showtime at the one theatre in which the film released in my city seem too expensive. I can assure the reader, however, that a de facto private screening in an empty theatre on a languorous Monday afternoon is the ideal setting for a screening of Licorice Pizza.
Three years ago, Quentin Tarantino used Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to simultaneously take a swinging blow at and celebrate his affinity for the films of the 1960s in the face of the emergence of the New Hollywood movement. His approach was characterised by a caustic gloom that mourned the emergence of cinematic cynicism and housed an impishly retaliatory historical revisionism. Through a slightly elevated optimism and a lowered reliance on blasé lamentation, fellow auteur Paul Thomas Anderson gives us his rose-tinted twist on cultural nostalgia with a film that is as keen on exploring the unpredictable psychologies of sociality that obstruct the assertion of affection as it is decidedly pleased with its intimate intent that resists categorisation as “Once Upon a Time Several Miles West of North Hollywood”.
Anderson was born in Studio City, which is in the southeastern region of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley; in the film, the central spatial agent is Encino, a neighbourhood in the southern portion of the Valley. Geographically, Anderson tucks himself snugly into comfortable terrain; the Valley is his stamping ground, having brought his earlier films Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) to life. As a filmmaker, Anderson mounts Licorice Pizza – the name itself being a reference to a local chain of music shops in the area that specialised in vinyl records – as a vicarious recollection of personal belonging.
The Encino of the early 1970s that the film carefully and tenderly simulates is presumably both Anderson’s vehicle to relive components of his childhood and his way of juxtaposing his forgotten futures onto the life of producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman. Goetzman, a friend of Anderson, is also the co-founder of film and television production company Playtone alongside Tom Hanks. The stories of his life, as he recounted them to Anderson, inform the film’s plot.
The film fictionalises Goetzman by rechristening him as Gary Valentine (Hoffman), a freckled and generally sweaty child actor navigating the transition into a phase of life where being “cute” will not fetch him much work any longer. As he vies for different roles, he operates a small publicity management firm with his mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). When we first meet him, he is a precocious and spirited fifteen-year-old who brands himself “a born showman”. Before we discover any of that, we behold the film’s pulsating heart in the opening scene: Alana Kane (Haim), a 25-year-old assistant to a photographer who serendipitously runs into Gary on “picture day” at his school. He is instantly (more than) smitten, and manages to convince her to have dinner with him in a matter of minutes.
Born into a conservative Jewish family, Alana is a forthright and overly sincere girl for whom a dinner with a 15-year-old is eventually an oddly propitious proposition, compared to receiving an offhanded slap in the bottom by her misogynistic boss on “picture day” at a high school. From this encounter begins a prolonged game of emotional tug-of-war, where the two characters remain firmly stationed at the ends of the same rope in an attempt to supersede each other in exhibiting the degree of their resistance to their unacknowledgeable feelings.
The film does not specify the precise quantum of time over which the events of the plot are spread, but one assumes that not enough years pass for Gary to be of “legal age” in the state of California. I ponder this point because the film does address, as one of its chief issues, the chasmic disparity of age between the two protagonists and the consequences of it on their social inability to vindicate possibilities of a more balanced relationship that could make way for sexual interactions. Gary is routinely reminded by Alana that he is a “kid”, while he lashes out at her at one point in the film by referring to her as an “old woman”. It is a contentious pairing nonetheless, which does invite debates on pedophilia; the film, however, is more invested in the characters overcoming their personal inhibitions regarding this dynamic and making a strong case for the necessity of these particular characters to do so.
The film is an unmistakable ode to an era when the streets of the San Fernando Valley were less cluttered and the sunshine was more radiant; a gentle tune composed in honour of the popular culture of the 1970s, which is subtly but abundantly pervasive. It is also peppered with numerous references to figures of the period. Actor William Holden is caricaturised as the foolhardy Jack Holden, drowning in equal measures of alcohol and self-adulation. He is egged on by loud-mouthed Rex Blau, a character based on director Mark Robson. Renowned actress Lucille Ball is turned into the supercilious Lucy Dolittle. In an amusing cameo, John C. Reilly portrays actor Fred Gwynne. Politician Joel Wachs of the Democratic Party, prominent patron of the arts and advocate of LGBTQ+ rights, is an important character in the film and is played by Safdie.
The soundtrack of the film is another winner, effortlessly defending the film’s temporal context and reminding us of the abiding reliability of the classics. Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead, composed the film’s score and its title track. The rest of the album reads like a compendium of memorable tracks by musicians such as David Bowie, Nina Simone, Seals and Crofts, The Doors, etc. The music provides the plot with a strong thematic anchor, accompanying every step of the way, one beat at a time.
The film, however, does not derail itself by falling prey to blind romanticism; without gawking at itself, it casually nudges the viewer to appreciate the arbitrary eventfulness of the time. This was a time when a 15-year-old battling obsolescence as a has-been child actor could suddenly try his hand at running a waterbed business, as Goetzman genuinely did; they delivered a waterbed to the house of producer John Peters while he was still a partner of famed singer-songwriter Barbara Streisand, which is captured in one of the film’s more risible tracks. In the same period, the boy had to abandon the business because of the 1973 oil crisis, after which he shifted his attention to opening a pinball arcade, which Goetzman also genuinely did.
The translation of these incidents into cinema is facilitated by the silent might of the film’s performances. Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, debuts in the film with a wonderfully rounded act. He infuses Gary with a sense of restless uncertainty that is masked by an endearing proclivity for boldness, walking a tightrope between precocious stubbornness and savvy proficiency. Cooper as Peters is one of the highlights of the film; he brings a quietly dark humour to the role of a boastful philandering dunce.
Penn is expectedly dependable as Holden, efficiently making the caricature convincing. It is ultimately Haim who is given most material to enhance, and she leaves no stone unturned to extract the most out of it. She brilliantly embodies the conflict that drives her indecision, and makes us sympathise with her inexorable efforts to distance herself from her obvious internal preoccupation with Gary. Her scenes with her family, especially one in which she almost monologically squabbles with her sisters, are also to be noted.
One of the most disarming facets of the equation that Alana and Gary share is the orientation of their seemingly isolated actions towards each other; insofar as they are unwilling to embrace their passions, they remain devoted to establishing a point about romantic independence for the other’s gaze. If Gary has brought girls to the same restaurant in which Alana is sitting with Jack Holden, his flushed face must find a table that is faced squarely in her direction. Only after Gary mentions a co-worker will Alana be reminded that the co-worker could also be a viable candidate to distract her from Gary. This back-and-forth is brilliantly captured, never divagating into cloying or annoying territories. It is also put forth as a drive of pettiness that the two feel pressured to bring themselves to, otherwise comfortable only in incontrovertible abandon.
This complex avoidance of a parley between the two sides is married to comedic overtones that, according to Anderson himself, are influenced chiefly by exemplary coming-of-age films such as American Graffiti (1973) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). The influence of filmmaker Robert Altman also looms large, with Anderson seeking to invoke Altman’s controlled improvisational interplay slightly more tightly. Several portions of the film are also reminiscent of Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), but in a more metaphysical sense instead of drawing obvious parallels in mise-en-scène or plot.
Anderson is clearly interested in furthering his signature ease of traipsing around narratives that demand abruptly shifting moods, and he does not loosen his hold on the pace with which he crafts the scattered intimacies of the characters. The cinematography on 35mm film stock, by Anderson and Michael Bauman, boosts the purpose of the plot; the well-timed swerves of the camera flirt with the brisk dialogue and the lively music to yield an enviable dalliance of cinema.
No matter how foreseeable the outcome, I admire films that convey the nuance of self-inflicted separation without glorifying it; the intervals of irksome longing that test the conviction of miserable lovers. Licorice Pizza does it well. It is a refreshing reminder of the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of love’s necessary perversions.