Tuesday, June 18, 2024

For Your Consideration: “Licorice Pizza”

By Mitchell Horwood 

​The phrase “Licorice Pizza” refers to the name of a defunct record store chain that existed in the 70s era of Southern California. But it’s also the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest offbeat, witty, and vaguely seductive movie, nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Like the chain, this retro time capsule is a valentine to an era frequently remembered by the “corrupt” values of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the restlessness of youth looking for life in all the wrong places. In this regard, it’s both a love letter to Paul Thomas Anderson’s past and his most personal film yet.

You don’t have to be a teen, like Gary Valentine, or a young adult, like Alana Kane, in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s to find yourself thoroughly sucked into the kinetic, nostalgia-ridden, and thoroughly entertaining world of “Licorice Pizza.” Even though the film has been widely marketed as a typical coming-of-age movie where its characters learn valuable lessons about what it truly means to be an adult, Paul Thomas Anderson puts a distinct romantic twist on the genre. The love story does not solely focus on a romantic relationship but instead on a nostalgic love for adolescence itself and adolescent behavior in general, where things never really seemed to matter before one day, they suddenly did.

Licorice Pizza” is a case study of teens and young adults in their enthusiastic efforts to identify meaning in their lives at their own pace and in their own time. The movie is filled with children acting like adults, such as the 15-year-old Gary (played charismatically well by newcomer Cooper Hoffman) and his friends, and adults acting like children, like the 25-year-old Alana (a sensational breakout performance from Alana Haim). Blurring these lines is precisely the point of this anti-coming-of-age tale, as every character is in an equal state of pretending to be mature or immature all the time. 

Although some viewers may have problems with the implied romantic elements between these two characters, I found its depiction in this fictional narrative to be by no means whatsoever an endorsement for it in the real world. Although there are moments of romantic flirtation, there is clearly a line that cannot be crossed between both characters, which Alana reminds Gary upon numerous occasions even if he still remains hopelessly devoted to her. The film simply would not function properly if it focused on two 25-year-olds or two teens in high school, as having the ability to experience both stages of growing up from Gary and Alana’s perspective makes the film feel fully formed. Gary and Alana’s connection is the bedrock of the movie, as they become close friends and clearly love each other platonically, but they also clearly have a longing for each other. This is the very source of the drama and the fun of the movie; their weird friendship that could spark, blow up or crumble at any moment, which is eerily reminiscent of many moments that one might experience as an adolescent coming of age, but in no way is this endorsing age gaps in actual relationships. 

Making the infatuation and long-lasting connection throughout the film between Alana and Gary is so expertly crafted by Anderson and his team. Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, carries his father’s mantle brilliantly, capturing an overtly infectious energy of charisma and teenage emotional longing for more than what life presents him with. The dynamic between Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman as actors and characters is undeniable, as they carry the film as a duo with flying colors. Hoffman has the chops to sculpt a wholly believable and relatively complex character, while Haim is simply hilarious, realistic, and intensely crushable. 

Alana still lives with her parents and two older sisters, and she is both embarrassed yet also intrigued that Gary, a precocious pimple-popping adolescent, has accomplished more in his short life than in her slightly longer one. She is wholly immature—acting anxious, naive, and aggressively angsty, but more than anything, she longs to be loved and feel substantial. Even though she is clearly older than Gary, she often acts like a stereotypical teenager more than he does, constantly swearing and acting rebellious to an invigorating degree. And that’s what makes her so magnetic to both Gary and the audience, making the ingenue casting of the youngest HAIM sister to be a genius move on Anderson’s part.

On the other hand, Gary is a teen with so much confidence it almost seems silly that he hasn’t been handed the key to the city of San Fernando Valley. He is a ringleader of a group of preteenage boys who assist him in accomplishing his assortment of wishes and goals, from selling waterbeds to opening up pinball palaces. While he is driven and has an evident passion for business and succeeding above all else, all of these shenanigans stemming from his various conquests only makes him seem more like a child. 

Paul Thomas Anderson presents Alana and Gary as orbiting each other in the realm of coming of age, with each character attempting to not truly grow up. As business partners in selling waterbeds and trying to get Alana her big acting break, Gary believes in his big-shot prowess of an adult trapped in a teen’s body while Alana is trying to find herself in the endless whirlpool of adulthood. While they develop a kinship amongst their interactions with their crazy lives, there always seems to be something more than that. They each want someone to take themselves seriously and listen to what they have to say, making them appear to be a perfect match for one another even if they can’t stop the fast pace of life from realizing it right away. 

Paul Thomas Anderson injects a boatload of rapidly-paced sequences that sometimes make it hard for a viewer to reflect on what has just taken place. But aren’t the weird one-off events that seem to pop out of nowhere and yet make up for timeless stories exactly what defines many moments of anyone’s adolescence? Nothing is more of an outrageous example than Bradley Cooper’s hyped-up role as Hollywood producer and beau of Barbara Streisand, Jon Peters. Cooper’s couple of scenes with Gary and Alana are some of the funniest of the year, ultimately blurring the line of absurdity and celebrity realism.

Other names like Sean Penn, Skyler Gisondo, Tom Waits, and the smile-inducing presence of Benny Safdie round out just some of the rest of the eclectic supporting cast, not even including some other big name talent that Paul Thomas Anderson sprinkles in for some cameos ranging from Hollywood royalty to global pop sensations. Maybe the best of all is Harriet Sansom Harris, who has one magisterial scene as Gary’s crazed casting agent. The whole sequence framed in such extreme a closeup that created the biggest laugh I’ve had all year but also hinted at Anderson’s view on the Hollywood industry.

To add to the endless assortment of throwback vibes, Paul Thomas Anderson infuses a 1970s flavored soundtrack that blends the many emotions and one-off sequences into a whole. However, including anthems from Paul McCartney, Gordon Lightfoot, and The Doors isn’t solely used for nostalgia. Paul Thomas Anderson also includes David Bowie’s hit “Life on Mars,” whose lyrics seem to depict what’s at work in the film itself literally. Bowie and Paul Thomas Anderson both paint a tale of a disillusioned “girl with mousy hair,” living with her parents and taking refuge from her underwhelming life, shown with a deep connection with movies and being a star. Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematography has a kind of a lushness that makes the viewer feel as if they are inhibiting a memory of their own childhood. The light is somehow always golden like the hot summer nights of youth always seemed to reflect. Even when it is night, it still feels like the world is glowing with a youthful picturesque lens. The sun-bleached streets look like a place where anything can happen, to us and its characters tortured by possibility.

A central theme of this film, along with many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous works, is the carefree action of running. It repeatedly happens throughout this movie, especially with both Alana and Gary. Their characters are on the move, on a quest for something, but in a twist to the coming of age genre, it is a feeling of racing with nowhere to go. It alludes to that when you are growing up, whether a teen or a young adult, and you don’t necessarily know what to do, there are those realizations that you just have to keep running around and having new experiences and meeting new people and seeing things. You can’t have life happen to you; you have to happen to it. It’s a film about memory, ambition, and striving for more as a younger person would. There is so much affection illustrated within this nostalgia for something universal: pure unadulterated youth. Alana is on the other side of that, wondering why she hangs out with Gary and his friends. Still, maybe that is just her having a premature longing for that teenage part of her life, something most people only experience when they are much older, around the age of Paul Thomas Anderson himself, which is why I believe he wanted to create this film in the first place.

Instead of creating a movie like “Dazed and Confused,” Paul Thomas Anderson made something far more similar to Quentin Tarantino’s recent feature “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.” He is depicting something precious and fleeting here, and as an aging director, he seems to be getting older and softer, leading to a more nostalgic and warm comfort flick. Both directors are engaging with the meta-histories of Hollywood and trying to reach back for something that might be a little blurry in their memories because time has ultimately passed.

Licorice Pizza” is about the extraordinarily relatable and powerful emotions that each of us has when we are coming of age and how many of those moments are wrapped in the idea of wanting to stay that age forever so we can hang onto our dreams a bit longer. It emphatically illustrates that if you can grasp any existing aspect of childhood left, you must sprint towards it like Alana and Gary do on numerous occasions and never ever let it go. It is for these reasons I hope members of the Academy can find it in themselves to cast a vote for at least one of the film’s three nominations and hopefully bring Paul Thomas Anderson, an eleven-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker who we’ve seen grow since his directorial debut in 1996 to become one of the most admired directors working today, his first illustrious Oscar win.

Do you think “Licorice Pizza” should win an Oscar? If so, which of its three nominations would you like to see converted into a win. Check out our latest Oscar predictions here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Mitchell and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mitchellman78

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