Charming & Heartwarming: LICORICE PIZZA
I am so fascinated in studying the genesis and ethos of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest feat that is LICORICE PIZZA. He's delved up inspiration from reconstructing notable personas into some hilarious human moments, influenced from revered friendships, and personal anecdotes, all percolating as he was ruminating on a walk in his own neighborhood eons ago. I especially appreciate his sensibility to swat away the little voice in his head that probably said, "Are you really going to make another movie that takes place in the San Fernando Valley in the 70's?" Hell yeah, he did and it's better than BOOGIE NIGHTS. And I love BOOGIE NIGHTS.
This past Saturday, viewing LICORICE PIZZA in it's 70mm format was fab-fucking marvelous. What's up with the title? Apparently back in the day it was a chain of record stores throughout Southern California that Sam Goody ended up buying out. Who knew! Why is it the name of the film? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it's homage to PTA'S childhood memories. Personally, I have no particular connection to the record chain store but looking at a sweet, chewy candy and cheesy bread as two separate types of foods makes me look at the contrast in personalities of the two leading characters, Gary (Cooper Hoffman, Philip Hoffman's son) and Alana (Alana Haim) as two offbeat, souls figuring out what to make of their lives while growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Gary has a confident, smooth talking, optimism, who's a gentleman, romantic, with boundless business man-like acumen for a 15 year old child star, who's at the end of said career path. He's a cute acne faced kid who thinks he can get Alana to be with him. Alana on the other hand is drifting, as a young 20 something girl working as an assistant to a high school portrait photographer, (who inappropriately slaps her ass at one point) while living at home with her Jewish parents and sisters. Alana speaks her mind, continuously questioning whether or not she should be hanging out with Gary, because she's 25 and it's weird.
If anything, the age-gap romance is the topical talking point most viewers immediately will point out. I want to clarify, it's nowhere near in comparison to the 1990s version of Adrienne Lynne's LOLITA. If the relationship were consummated it would be a huge, glaring problem however, in LICORICE PIZZA it is not the case. The film isn’t interested in parsing out the morality of the age difference, instead it emphasizes their friendship with a sweet scent of romanticism that's gestating like a seed blooming into a crop of sunflowers. It’s pleasant, pure, and heartwarming. The weird thing is during the opening sequence, I kept trying to grapple with what was happening and now understand it was an elaborate meet cute, shot in what felt like an unconventional manner but it works. It works really well. In fact, it kept reminding me of the opening sequence in BOOGIE NIGHTS. The camera just flows and meanders capturing the ambience, sporadic conversations of prominent characters and really just plants you into their world. It's almost like it's becoming a signature PTA mark or maybe it's just easy to convey as there's so much 70's milieu to indulge in. It works just as well in LICORICE PIZZA, where in the beginning, a long line of high school students waiting to take their picture for the school year with back and forth banter between the two leads as the line saunters forward. I was partly confused because I somehow thought Alana was also a high school student. Maybe that's why the camera position is so effective, it transplants you right back into high school as a confused voyeur. But the real hook is how Gary smooth talks his way into persuading Alana to meet him at the "Tail of the Cock" the restaurant her frequents at weekly. Who is this kid?
In certain ways the "romance" between Gary and Alana felt peculiarly familiar to PTA’s PHANTOM THREAD. There’s this push and pull relationship where it’s a little chaotic and somewhat emotionally draining. At the beginning, Gary seems to hold the dominance in the relationship, but ultimately it’s Alana who vies for power in the end. The same thing happens between Reynolds and Alma in PHANTOM THREAD. For Gary and Alana they’re constantly running together, separately and running towards each other as indicated throughout each act of the narrative in these beautiful tracking shots with various views of the Valley in the background. In PHANTOM THREAD it was the car Reynolds drove to the countryside, met Alma, took Alma to dinner, and eventually back to his residence in the city where she became his muse, and eventually his wife. There’s perpetually a mutual power dynamic at play that shifts over the course of time which is also obvious in LICORICE PIZZA.
For instance, Gary opening up his waterbed business brings him closer to Alana, and she proudly takes part in his venture. So the POV is on him and the control of launching his business at a cute teenage faire where he hopes to put his name out there but this seems to be upended when he's randomly taken away by police. I won't spoil it but there's some deadpan hilarity in the sequence, you can't help but just laugh. The brilliance in that scene is you're just as dumbfounded as the expression on Gary's face throughout the entire moment. I love it. Of course, at a point, Alana comes to the rescue and the power dynamic shifts when she's literally the one behind the steering wheel carrying them into a different adventure. You'll see this consistently throughout, when one character dares to try something and is foiled, the other character is there to either support, save, or chew their ass out in frustration. After sometime Alana realizes how much she cares for Gary, but given he's a 15 year old kid, his attention veers into other girls, and you can see the subtlety in Alana's facial expressions where there's a hint of be-grudgedness , not necessarily by his lack of attention for her, but in how he's building his life. In a sense her life orbits his until she's able to grasp what she wants to do with hers which is totally relatable. It reminds me of this particular relationship I once had, where I felt I was floundering while trying to fit into someone's life. I didn't fit. It wasn't me. I realized the passion instilled in this former boyfriend had with his creative pursuits was something I envied and wanted for myself. It was a heavy, heartbreaking pill to swallow at the time, but I am incredibly grateful it did, because it pushed me in the direction I was meant to go in this silly adventure called life. I got my adventure going, marching to the beat of my own drum, and making damn sure filmmaking was a big part of it.
The most enchanted treasure in all of this is Alana Haim owns the screen. She's bare, vulnerable, flawed, but tough. She holds her own especially for never acting before. No bra, no make up, all gumption. Her character falls into various orbits of men while pursuing her own purpose, whether it's trying to be an actor and making Gary jealous be being "arm-candy" with a William Holden stand in (Sean Penn), or trying to support and be part of social change with the politician, Koel Wachs (Benny Safdie) who's untrue to himself using her as a shield from media uproar. Or Alana's biggest and my favorite moment in the film is when she's coasting a mover's truck backwards down the Hollywood hills, because it's the 70s and there's a gas shortage.I love how that plays a part in itself to make this scene even more purposeful.
As I keep diving into the genetic makeup that is this film, there’s this sense of being part of an archeological exploration. Bits of history intertwined in a creative fashion makes the film feel even more special than my initial thoughts going in. I was totally surprised. The characters for instance such as Sean Penn’s persona of William Holden or Christine Ebersole mannerisms of Lucille Ball or my favorite Bradley Cooper’s wildly chaotic (with creative freedom) take on Jon Peters really widens the story and misadventures between Gary and Alma. It’s like if you criss-cross playing Candyland with the WIZARD OF OZ. There's just so much to "oh and ah" to drool over. I mean the details of the 70s are so weird but fun; waterbeds, gorgeous cars, blazing with colorful fashion and styles, rotary telephones, bean bag chairs, pinball machines, it's just so alive. And most of all movies made on actual film are special, there's a warmth in them that digital just can't emulate, it lights up my brain like fireworks.
The one criticism I will point out is the subplot with Koel Wachs. It felt like it was a little too much and didn't flow as well as the opening sequence of the first act. It almost stymies the momentum. Maybe that's the purpose, given it's from Alana's POV. There's this perceived notion she's becoming a real adult gaining experience on a campaign. Even within the campaign there's some drama boiling beneath the surface that has nothing to do with Alana other than pinning the realization that these men are no better than hanging out with teenage kids. So might as well hang out with the teenage boys, play some pinball and drink free Pepsi. Also never realized pinball was illegal in the 1930s and then reinstated as legal in the 70s. That was a fun little history lesson. Long live the pinball!
As a filmmaker, the little details are what make me admire this particular work. The connections, especially when I heard Tim Conway Jr ( a radio host, I listen to often when driving home from work) had a brief role. A little back history, here. Paul Thomas Anderson's father Ernie Anderson worked as a writer in radio with Tim Conway back in Cleveland and the two have worked off and on throughout their careers. Seeing their two sons in 2020 work together on a film is touching almost as if it's honoring in keeping the spirit of their fathers' creativity alive. It's a personal touch, when you make a film with close friends and family is such a tremendous accomplishment and to be received as well.
It’s the beautiful thing about telling a story with a foundation based on memories from a person’s life and amping it up with arousing curiosity and heartwarming sentiments which essentially creates nostalgia in a very poignant way. In opposite fashion to PHANTOM THREAD, there’s certainly more laughter in adolescent awkwardness, and more of a connection between the material and the audience. People feel that nostalgia when they see things from their adolescence and to those who weren't even alive experience it as something new and foriegn. I love that contrast and maybe that's a big part of it's appeal to such a wide audience. Sharing it for two separate reasons elicits a conversation, a story to be told, a laugh to be had, tears to be expressed, memories to live on, allowing us to be vulnerable, cherished and appreciated. Or kind and honest. Funny and awkward. Daring and failing. Loved and despised. Depressed and confused. LICORICE PIZZA is like a pinball machine. You are the ball bouncing from one corner to the next, fast, slow, being a blazing beacon of flashing, jittery neon light with circling noises filled with adventure drifting into a hue of smog where the gummy stickiness of the Nixon era elicits a frustration and upheaval, but you're young and full of gumption, a wholesomeness that has yet to be smeared.
PTA took a daring risk to cast two unknown leads, and it paid off, which reminds me of a kind of Cassavetes spirit, in the realm of independent films using non actors at times, always interested in people. Certainly, makes the authenticity soar even higher than a studio made picture that only sees dollar signs and a specific aesthetic of makeup and image. In its purity and execution, LICORICE PIZZA is cunning and relatable. It's a lovable film for it's enriching awkwardness of being young, inexperienced, zealous with ideas to explore and experience while figuring how this incessant need for love makes one whole. Please go see LICORICE PIZZA, it's one of Paul Thomas Anderson's best films, certainly my favorite of the year. Its wide release is Christmas Day. It hasn't even been a whole week yet, and I already want to go back for a second viewing. Cheers.