There’s an early moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest picture LICORICE PIZZA that I feel like I haven’t seen in a movie in years. A character needs to get in touch with another character so they call them on the phone, hoping they are home. Someone else picks up the phone on the other end, and that character gets someone else. They ask if the person they want to talk to is there, and that person calls the character over to pick up the phone, which is also on a cord attached to a wall. I’m explaining that old thing that I even grew up with where you had to hope that person was home and asking another person to come to the phone. It’s a moment that I totally forgot about, but this is a movie that brings it all back to life.
To describe moments like this LICORICE PIZZA is somewhat challenging because like the recent WEST SIDE STORY (which I have now seen three times, in case you’re curious), you get wrapped up in it and watch it on its own wavelength. In this case, LICORICE PIZZA gives us lots of time to let its leads think through situations and grow through them along with being a genuine time capsule of a nearly forgotten era, rather than some lesser movies where all of the thinking is done and everything is all explained for us.
Set in the San Fernando Valley where Anderson grew up hanging out on the suburban streets of Encino, the movie introduces us to Alana (Alana Haim) as a twenty-something who is helping take pictures at a high school. Immediately, she is approached by Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and he’s immediately interested in her…even though there’s a ten year age gap. Gary is a full on hustler right from minute one. He’s hitting on the older Alana, he’s acting and putting together various projects and even with his non-traditional actor “look” he’s still a mover and shaker. As it turns out, this movie is based on legendary producer Gary Goetzman who went on to become one of the most powerful and influential Hollywood producers in the 1980s. Alana herself is very business motivated but feels a bit more wanderlust than Gary, but the two of them make such a unique pair and to see them both pursue their own dreams is fascinating. There’s Gary’s dream to get a pinball arcade up and running (featuring a factoid of pinballs being illegal in California up until that time…I learn something new every day!), promoting waterbeds and even Alana working with a politician, played in a surprising turn from UNCUT GEMS co-director Benny Safdie of all people.
There are so many unique little moments here to cherish. Earlier I explained the phone call scene of Gary calling Alana, but her sister Este picks up, asks “Is Alana there?” with Este calling Alana over. All of this is done in a wide shot and I don’t know why, but the time and care it took to create this image and run with it absolutely warmed my heart. There are many sequences with wide angles, reflections and positioning the character lower in the frame. A shot of Gary running down a street while cars are lined up during a gas shortage, capping with a sign that reads “Out of Gas, Rent a Bike” is a highlight, in particular as David Bowie is playing on the soundtrack.
Later, there’s a sequence with a truck stuck in reverse that just plays out, in real time with no accompanying soundtrack, in such a fascinating way that you keep pinching yourself wondering how such original ideas can still come out of a filmmaker when I feel like everything has been done already. Anderson also has a rway, like with BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA, to even make the wide, wandering suburban streets of the Valley so romantic that it’s like I have lived there for many years. Anderson’s style here moves in gentle waves. Many shots here are long takes that just let it fixate on Alana and what she’s thinking but also how her unique beauty and personality bounce off of the outskirts of fame. I also mentioned the soundtrack, and it is full of some traditional hits but also non-traditional ones of the era, along with Anderson’s usual collaborator, Jonny Greenwood of Raidohead, giving us a flowing music score as elegant as Anderson’s images.
What sets LICORICE PIZZA all apart is a lead performance by Alana Haim who Anderson clearly wanted to keep not only her name as a character…but go right ahead and also cast her Haim counterparts Danielle and Este along with their parents too as Alana’s family. Moviegoers may have never seen Alana before, but this Haim fan has seen the three sisters develop so much over the last decade and Alana especially come into her own as a musician of many talents. Anderson has also filmed many of Haim’s music videos in the last couple of years, which has led to her making her acting debut here. In the movie, her beauty and personality really sneaks up on you. She’s fiercely independent and doesn’t take crap and it’s years ahead of other girls her age.
As Gary, Cooper Hoffman is such a charmer here that I didn’t even realize until after that he is the son of the late Phil Seymour Hoffman who did many movies with Anderson. I loved all of his great timing and personality here and like with Alana Haim, this is also his feature film debut that will no doubt make stars out of the both of them. There are so many smaller but pivotal performances here; Sean Penn and Georgio DiCaprio were standouts as connections to Alana, and there’s a wonderful cameo by Tom Waits being introduced by way of a cloud of cigarette smoke, but the real winner was Bradley Cooper playing a young Jon Peters, the infamous hairdresser-turned-producer who went on to produce the 1989 BATMAN, mostly thanks to Barbara Streisand. Cooper’s role here is brief, but it ends in a shot that I want to frame on my wall.
The free-wheeling, slow pacing and even use of music harkens back to this era just the way that Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD did just two years ago, and like with Quentin we see PT Anderson very much mature as a filmmaker with his style evolving so much over the years. Moving from the William H. Macy, Julianne Moore and Phil Seymour Hoffman era of BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA and then moving to showcase powerhouse talents in unique ways; Adam Sandler’s unique turn in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, Daniel Day Lewis to an Oscar in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and then Joaquin Phoenix twice in THE MASTER and INHERENT VICE, then once again with Lewis in PHANTOM THREAD. Here he brings back the feelings of a younger Robert Altman mixed with Cameron Crowe with a few dashes of Hal Ashby and Warren Beatty pictures in for good mix. And yes, film fans, Anderson continues his love for celluloid and is back with an anamorphic widescreen frame that is filled to the very edges.
Ultimately, LICORICE PIZZA will not be for everyone, and I get that. I recommend not watching any clips, avoid most online discussion and just let its images and sounds wash over you. I also admit that I am a long-time fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and I came to this movie with my own built-in anticipation. With that said, I went with every moment and image here and it absolutely delivers in one of Anderson’s best pictures in years. Oh, and if you’re wondering, there is no actual Licorice Pizza in the movie, but I do plan to visit one of the record stores the next time I am in the Valley.
LICORICE PIZZA is now playing in theatres.