Licorice Pizza (2021)

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

/USA, 2021. , , . Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson. Cinematography by Paul Thomas Anderson, . Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Lightening up considerably after the mind-boggling twists of Inherent Vice and the dark romantic tension of Phantom Thread, director Paul Thomas Anderson revisits elements of both films but filtered through a bright and youthful perspective. We’re back in Los Angeles in around 1973 or 1974, judging by the cultural references dropped throughout, and we once again have a man and a woman locked in a battle of wills, but in this comedy, things unfold in much more capricious and often downright bizarre ways.

is superb in her lead debut as Alana, an assistant for a school photographer who scoffs in the face of a fifteen year-old boy named Gary who hits on her before getting his yearbook picture taken. She can’t help feeling amused by him despite their egregious age difference (she is in her mid-twenties), meeting him for dinner at his favourite restaurant and discovering that, despite his youth, he is the quite the renaissance man, already finding some success as an actor on a show starring as a Lucille Ball-like comedienne (with a temper to match) and is a natural business entrepreneur (the character, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son , is based on Anderson’s memories of childhood friend turned powerhouse Hollywood producer Gary Goetzman).

When his mother is unable to be Gary’s chaperone on a New York press tour for the Ebersole show, he convinces Alana to go with him instead, hoping that this will improve his chances to have her take him seriously as a sexual prospect, but she ends up getting cozy with his co-star (in another inspired comedic performance) instead. That goes south fast and she finds herself back in Gary’s orbit, becoming his business associate when he jumps on the burgeoning waterbed craze and turns it into a profitable business that includes an unforgettable run-in with none other than hairdresser turned film producer Jon Peters (played with a punctuating aggression by ). Neither Alana nor Gary give in to each other’s desire to dominate the other, and their bond is tested when she decides to focus more of her time on the mayoral campaign of a city councilman () for whom she has some mushy feelings.

Shot in gorgeous widescreen like a classic MGM musical but with Anderson’s trademark fascination with understated conflicts between warring personalities, this episodic, almost peripatetic plot has the director remembering the San Fernando Valley in the early seventies as a real-life Wonderland, where an audition with “Jack Holden” ( playing William, likely getting ready to shoot Breezy) could suddenly turn into late-night martinis and a motorcycle stunt over a fire pit, and where the oil crisis that has Americans lining up at gas stations can become, in the film’s best sequence, a nocturnal, unwieldy drive up and down a canyon in a gasless truck.  Where Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood put a glinty glamor on even the grungiest aspects of its setting, Anderson’s L.A. is a strange suburban landscape where you can score with an acting agent, but that agent is going to be a terrifyingly unpredictable mass of nerves (another superb cameo by after her turn in Phantom Thread), and a place where international culture is at so low a threshold that no one knows what Japanese food is, and , in the film’s oddest subplot, communicates with his two Japanese wives in a cringeworthy accent.

Haim is playing a character that bears her own first name and is cast alongside her real-life sisters doing the same, Anderson perfectly capturing their real-life vibe of seeming like they’re from this era and culture, but Alana’s performance in particular is more than just a riff on her persona. A star is born overnight with this turn, she has a command on screen that is fascinating (I could watch her steer that truck for hours and not get bored) and her sharp confidence, sometimes undercut by the odd moment of vulnerability, is a strong contrast to Hoffman as the surprisingly gifted but goofy and perpetually unkempt teenager (who has also inherited his father’s talent for always looking, even at his most intense, like he’s drooling).

It’s a very personal film from a director whose films are already incredibly personal (thus, for viewers who are not fans of his, is as frustrating as the rest of his oeuvre), and it has very little interest in the kind of cohesion you might be expecting will come out of the random manner in which each adventure leads to the next; this film is more like an energy you enjoy being infused by for two hours, and is quite confident in its refusal to make its deeper secrets known to you.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson); Best Original Screenplay

Critics Choice Award: Best Comedy
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actress (Alana Haim); Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson); Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Young Actor/Actress (Cooper Hoffman); Best Acting Ensemble

Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Picture-Musical/Comedy; Best Actor-Musical/Comedy (Cooper Hoffman); Best Actress-Musical/Comedy (Alana Haim); Best Screenplay

Screen Actors Guild Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper)

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