If nothing else, you return to your routine after an Omicron-impacted winter break having seen the ever-marketable “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in some streaming locale. But maybe alternatively—or perhaps corequisitely—you experienced Paul Thomas Anderson’s (PTA’s) newest and most aesthetically refined love letter to the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
“Licorice Pizza”—named for the SoCal record store in the late ‘70s and ‘80s and its eponymous dub-term for black vinyl records—follows precocious 15-year-old Gary Valentine and the regal, dazed and confused Alana Kane on their respective and interwoven journeys in American suburbia over the hill, at the height of popular culture itself. It is inspired by and loosely based on the young-actor life of PTA’s pal Gary Goetsmen, which was, as you may have guessed, full of crazy Valley experiences.
To start, the movie’s title does not formalize any kind of thematic object or titular concept about “Licorice Pizza” in particular. They do not even talk about music or venture into a record store, but rather the characters just exist in the ‘70s and the film expects you to have the historical consciousness of that market being on the rise and talent rising to the occasion.
We meet 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of late Philip Seymour Hoffman) in his “Almost Famous” moment; the men’s bathroom charts a row of mid-pubescent boys, among them a portly, acne-spotted adolescent fervently fixating on his appearance. We meet 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim, musician and performer in her acting debut) in the same setting. The mysterious woman is at high-school picture day because she works for the photographer. To follow is a blur of events, including ones providing somewhat anthropological commentary on the oil crisis, Nixon, political organizing, stardom and the closetting of queer politicians. Gary and Alana do not grow up, but grow into. The bourgeois of the entertainment industry (including Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Sean Penn, and of course PTA’s wife Maya Rudolph) are cast as minor characters who engrave new places, predicaments, and feelings on the map of an area to which the two central characters are otherwise native.
PTA films generally lack overall structure but master a sound algorithm in the romantic storyline which runs parallel with the general plot. A traditional love story plot is constructed in three definable acts; there is love at first sight with an inciting event, then a harsh cut to Act Two beginning with the couple “getting together” in some way (be it through a realization of syncing wavelength or a direct conversation), then a seamless transition into Act Three with literal running or another physical portrayal of methodical escalation, maybe best expressed in the camera work. For years, filmmakers have pursued projects which challenge and extricate that blueprint. Not Paul Thomas Anderson: he diligently fulfills the archetypal expectations in his otherwise plotless narratives.
Without giving anything explicitly away, I will vaguely confirm that “Licorice Pizza” has all of those elements from the very first inciting event (which occurs after about 12 minutes of screentime) to the excessive use of running. A deep musing I have is on whether the running is really symbolic or not. When considering the script, perhaps the only thing the excessive use of running symbolizes is, unfortunately, creative laziness.
What makes “Licorice Pizza” interesting (and potentially frustrating) is how the main love story is developing in the background of various short stories. My view is that the historically conscious plots and circumstances resting in the margins of the main story are what make it so culturally enticing as a period piece. I also think PTA had to script a story of geopolitical and socioeconomic counternarratives to distract from what today is a risky and, admittedly, disturbing age-gap that has disengaged many of today’s romance critics from otherwise successful and well-crafted relationship stories in films such as “Dirty Dancing” and the more recent “Call Me By Your Name.” As with most relationship-centered films, there is also the question of who is the protagonist. Alana and Gary do get proportional screen time and classic PTA close-up shots, so that makes the conclusion quite difficult to make. The story is built around Gary until Act Three in “Licorice Pizza,” but the strongest epiphany happens to Alana. She is the one who needs to decide she’s ready for something in the relationship that Gary has known and wanted all along.
What IndieWire calls Paul Thomas Anderson’s “most lovable and magical work to date” is to me his most immaterial. “Licorice Pizza” has the universality that “Spencer,” even “Nightmare Alley” with its reputation-preceding cast, lacked at the end of the 2021 movie season. “Licorice Pizza” has a distinct 70s look, though the formalization to 70mm makes it not too grainy. And even with its generally enjoyable projection of life, “Licorice Pizza” is a provocatively unorthodox commentary on modernity as much as it is a time capsule of a place in a coveted time for culture and politics. Gary is an aging child actor who will learn to gain economic status by responding to the juvenile demands of the American market and adapting to the socio-political constraints of production in the ‘70s. He is a funny, funny character. Alana is perceptive and simultaneously indicative of the everyday people we look up to and we mentor ourselves.
“Licorice Pizza” is rabble-rousing. It is uncomfortable. It is comedic. It is flat, yet cyclical while still without structure. Shot on location, it is a cinematographic homage to the San Fernando Valley that PTA called home which shaped his groundbreaking, order-disturbing previous work that is “Boogie Nights.” The reason why some like his films and others do not is because of the hit-or-miss creative process he uses. The social engineering in “Phantom Thread” with Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Crieps is apparent in “Licorice Pizza” with Bradley Cooper and the gang of newbies in the position previously held by Crieps. The directorial choice of not introducing actors beforehand certainly had an impact on the film’s results. Rookie actors seeing A-listers in the flesh for the first time on film will obviously impact authenticity as well as speed and consistency. The acting performances in general are what most broadly shape the perception of a film. So, if someone does not like the scene being influenced by starstruckenness, they may not appreciate the collective art, the project as a whole. Moreover, one could argue the aestheticism of California-centric PTA films are just not for every viewer.
Variety has “Licorice Pizza” third in their predicted rankings for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, following “Belfast,” “The Power of the Dog” and by “CODA” and “Dune”. I respect the art, though “Licorice Pizza” is by no means my favorite movie of 2021. In the process of reflection and criticism, however, I was able to develop an understanding of PTA’s merit and acclaim. Every component of the production, from the original soundtrack—consisting of some groovy ‘70s-adjacent tunes from Bowie’s prime to the stone cold, reserved sensuality that is Nina Simone’s “July Tree” to the masked vulgarity of Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling-A-Ling” that parallels the surprising and frankly hilarious sexual prowess of the young Hoffman’s character—to the unpretentious casting choices to the moments where the cinematography is clearly just a result of the crew having fun with the hue of the sky, is honorable.