Licorice Pizza is a Late-Career Spiritual Throwback from an Auteur Filmmaker, Film Companion

Writer & Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph, Benny Safdie, John Michael Higgins

Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s nostalgic, utterly charming, and at times melancholy, invocation of the past. You are more likely to enjoy it if you are a certain kind of cinephile. It looks like an old Hollywood film. It is drifting and digressing, loose and shaggy, and defiantly anti what’s in vogue (closest to Anderson’s Inherent Vice than any of his other films, maybe Boogie Nights to an extent). Even then, it’s hard not watch the opening sequence without a big smile on your face – a walk-and-talk meet-cute between the two young lovers, which has the kind of witty, flirtatious repartee of a Woody Allen romance (indeed, one of Anderson’s references was Manhattan). There’s a casual mastery behind the scene’s shooting style, in the freewheeling camera and the lovely, warm California sunlight. On the soundtrack is Nina Simones’ “July Tree”, a time-specific song. The scene goes something like this: Not-yet-fifteen-year-old Gary is trying to woo twenty-five-year-old – or so she claims – Alana. Gary’s wooing is aggressive, his confidence winning. Somehow, it’s able to walk the tightrope between being true to the seventies and looking at that kind of behaviour through a 2021 lens. (“I’m not trying to pressure you”, “You are pressuring me”, “You are. That’s what you’re doing”). 

The same is true of the film. The film Anderson had in mind while making it is American Graffiti, a certain kind of guys-centric film. Even though Licorice is about both Alana and Gary, it is favoured towards her, calling out on his toxicity now and then. He is smart and enterprising, turning his dim career possibilities as a child actor into the entrepreneurial idea of selling waterbeds. Both come from not so affluent working families. But she is the ‘hero’, turning just another phone call with the client into a scene-stealing seduction act, and in a crazily adventurous stunt drive a truck without gas.

At the same time, it’s unafraid to come across as politically incorrect in its somewhat stereotypical depiction of the character. Alana, it is implied, is looking for a way out of her family home (presided over by her overbearing Jewish father), by clinging on to men of influence, including being an arm candy actress to a movie star played by Sean Penn. In a cinematic tour de force of a sequence in a golf course, Penn’s character performs an impromptu bike stunt in front of an audience, so consumed by his own vanity that Alana is thrown off from it (a weirdly comic moment, among a series of weirdly comic moments, shot with with film stock suited for night and low-light scenes). It’s a period in Alana’s life when Gary and she aren’t together, something that keeps happening throughout the film: Alana and Gary team up and drift apart, only to get back together. 

 

The editing pattern at first feels like glaring time lapses before you settle into the rhythm, which, I guess, works the way human memory works. This is the filmmaker looking back at a period when he was a kid, lovingly recreating cultural details including looking at the Billboard Top 100 of a specific year and using some of those songs. The title is knocked off from the name of a local music record store he used to frequent as a youngster. Of course, only a few people will know the store, but what matters is the feeling it creates (like Anderson says, “I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood”). Likewise, we may not be familiar with these references, but a deep sense of personal truth illuminates the work. The funky pizza box title font is in alignment with its aesthetics, from its use of bright colours on walls to the subcultural elements in the plot like pinball parlour legalisation to its hangout movie vibe. 

But Anderson’s invocation of the past goes beyond period details, homages, or the use of old film techniques – or having fun with guest stars like Penn, Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits (director Benny Safdie plays a politician) by getting them to play versions of real life personalities in San Fernando Valley at the time. The secret heart of Licorice Pizza lies in the casting of its two young leads. The first timers bring something more than freshness; for Anderson they embody spirits of the past. Cooper Hoffman is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son and Alana Haim’s mother was Anderson’s art teacher in elementary school. Anderson was in thrall of her (“With long, beautiful hair, who would play guitar and teach us how to paint, burned into my memory as this rainbow,” he describes her in an interview). It might explain the angle of a young boy falling in love with a much older girl, played by Haim, supposedly a spitting image of her mother. (Anderson goes one step further by meta casting the entire Haim family, who play a version of themselves). Perhaps, it also explains the adolescent innocence in the way the movie shows – or rather does not show – sex. Intimate scenes are blocked from the audience’s view, if not the characters, and Anderson keeps Alana and Gary’s relationship platonic until they kiss in the, um, climax.

Haim is a member of a rock band Anderson has been making music videos for, but she’s a natural movie star (described in the movie as both “an English pit bulldog with sex appeal” and someone who reminds of Grace Kelly). You can tell from the opening sequence that the camera is in love with her. It looks touchingly at Hoffman’s vulnerabilities, such as a failed audition scene in which he moves clumsily and unimpressively, struggling to take off his jacket in style because he doesn’t have an unreal body like most actors do – he actually has a paunch. Hoffman brings something to the film that transcends what’s going on screen considering his father’s working history with the director. Licorice Pizza, on its surface, may seem like an exercise in nostalgia, but it’s so much more. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, it’s a late-career spiritual throwback for an auteur filmmaker who has earned his place.

Licorice Pizza released in Indian theatres on February 25 

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