Combustible Celluloid
With: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Joseph Cross, Christine Ebersole, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Skyler Gisondo, Harriet Sansom Harris, John Michael Higgins, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Emma Dumont, Emily Althaus, Este Haim, Danielle Haim
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual material and some drug use
Running Time: 133
Date: 11/26/2021

Licorice Pizza (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Off the Record

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Licorice Pizza is the kind of film I like best from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. It doesn't feel like he's trying too hard to make a Great Film, as he has done in the past. It's his most relaxed work, and perhaps his funniest. While it has a large cast that drifts in and out of the background, it — like two of his best films, Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread — focuses on just a couple of characters. But it's also looser than those two intricately-designed films, closer in spirit (and timeline) to Boogie Nights. It's sunny and grungy, and it feels expansive, and slightly off-kilter. There's a lot of running in the movie, and characters often seem to run from right-to-left.

It's set in 1973 in the San Fernando Valley. The title refers to a popular record store of that time and place, although the store itself never appears for some reason. (There are plenty of pop and rock songs in any case.) Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman's son, making his film debut) is a fifteen year-old high school student and actor. On school picture day, he is thunderstruck by the 25-year-old photographer's assistant, Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the pop group HAIM; her real-life bandmates and sisters appear here as her movie sisters). Despite their obvious differences, as well as a palpable friction between them, the two become friends.

Gary reminded me of a character in a film by the other Anderson, Max Fischer in Rushmore, a suave, smooth-talking adult trapped in an inelegant child's body. He can get anyone to go along with any of his schemes, which includes organizing a waterbed company and opening a pinball arcade. The fate of Gary's acting career is not discussed, but a single look on a casting agent's face (played by Anderson's partner Maya Rudolph) indicates that maybe he's just not a cute kid anymore. Alana does her own thing as well, by volunteering with a politician, Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), running for office. (This subplot is surprisingly predictable, but still effective.)

It's barely a screenplay, but it has a life force, moving at the speed of bright ideas and chain reactions. The long, wandering sequences in which these stories unfold can be mesmerizing, such as when, for no reason, an actor (Sean Penn) is encouraged by a director (Tom Waits) — as well as lots of alcohol — to ride a motorcycle through a fire. A great centerpiece has Gary and Alana delivering a waterbed to a sleazy Hollywood guy (Bradley Cooper), who is dating Barbra Streisand. Cooper's exchange with Hoffman will be great fun for actors to re-create in acting class, but the sequence that follows it — Alana piloting a gasless delivery truck — is truly exhilarating (and without even the use of suspense music).

At the center is the strange relationship between its two characters, perhaps just as strange as the one in Phantom Thread. Alana constantly wonders why she spends so much time with Gary, but she can't help herself. He has an unflappable confidence, and he's fun to be around. Characters ask them if they're dating, and when they reply in the negative, the response is usually: "why not"? It's a fair question. It feels like the entire movie asks that question, as in: why call the movie Licorice Pizza? Why not? Sometimes things — perhaps songs from a record store — are utterly meaningless, but they give us something, a feeling, or a connection. The movie offers us a chance to just be here.

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