The Ardor of “Licorice Pizza”


Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza.


In December 1999, the Los Angeles Times profiled director Paul Thomas Anderson ahead of his third feature, Magnolia, under the headline “The New New Wave.” The article placed Anderson among an ascendant peer group of youngish white male directors like David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, and Darren Aronofsky, most of whom had recently released films. Crucially, however, it also positioned Anderson as the leader of this pack, someone whose talent was so widely recognized that he had the ear of Francis Ford Coppola and dined with Warren Beatty. The profile characterized him as a classic ’70s New Hollywood auteur, à la Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese, someone with complete creative freedom and an exacting level of control over every aspect of the production and release of his films, down to editing the trailer himself.

The article’s writer, Patrick Goldstein, goes to some lengths to depict Anderson as a brash kid caught up in the Hollywood scene that he had always orbited, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley with a showbiz father. The young director wants people to see him at dinner with his famous friends. He’s slightly jealous that everyone recognizes Quentin Tarantino when they walk down the street together but not him. However, at age 29, he is self-aware enough to be wary of “the spotlight,” despite wanting attention and acclaim. The piece ends with Anderson asking rhetorically, “Is it possible that when you get older you get a little more clarity on these things?”

That the answer to that question is yes has been borne out by his post-Magnolia output, as each of Anderson’s subsequent films evince greater emotional maturity and formal control. They trade in the influence-laden hyperactivity of his ’90s work for an understated spontaneity, and Anderson has slowly settled into a more confident, less needy register, which allows him to explore unfamiliar territory. His latest film, Licorice Pizza, returns to the San Fernando Valley setting of his youth and his early films: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. Yet despite the youth of the film’s protagonists, Licorice Pizza doesn’t display any juvenile tendencies. It’s the work of a 51-year-old former wunderkind, now established as an American auteur, who might indeed have gained a little more clarity in the intervening decades.

Set in 1973, Licorice Pizza follows the extended flirtation between wayward twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the pop-rock group Haim) and 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), a child actor and hustling entrepreneur whose slick confidence affords him professional opportunities and the trust of many adults far beyond his years. Alana and Gary’s passionate yet unconsummated romance makes up the spine of Licorice Pizza, but Anderson uses it to explore various liminal states of being, especially the trying, unpredictable period between childhood and adulthood. Gary uses his preternatural charm to move through adult spaces with a transparent desire to rid himself of his boyhood limitations. Alana, however, lives in the world that Gary desperately wants to conquer and sees how unfulfilling and dissatisfying it can be. Both are impulsive and reckless in their own ways, but they share an intriguingly lopsided attraction for each other. Gary falls for Alana because he sees a “mature” woman who can facilitate his entry into adulthood, whereas Alana falls for Gary because she envies his naive view of the grown-up world. The irony, of course, is that Alana is far less mature than she appears, and Gary (despite his relative inexperience) has savant-like street smarts that will inevitably take him far. The swooning romanticism, the twisted relationship dynamics, and the celluloid vision of Anderson’s hometown during a time he never experienced all make for a syncretic and career-spanning work. In a way, it’s a culmination of the director’s interests and his most personal film yet.

Anderson structures Licorice Pizza as a series of anecdotes from Gary and Alana’s lives, with each sequence resembling a story told second- or thirdhand. The pair meet when Alana, a photographer’s assistant, shows up at Gary’s high school for class picture day; he asks her out to dinner, an invitation she uneasily accepts. Sometime later, Alana acts as Gary’s chaperone on a trip to New York so he can appear in a variety show with Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole). Gary and Alana eventually start a waterbed business and deliver one to a volatile, lascivious Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), the movie producer, boyfriend of Barbra Streisand, and suspected inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo. At one point, Gary is falsely accused of murder; at another, Alana auditions for a film opposite a legendary actor named Jack Holden (Sean Penn). Later, she accompanies Holden on a risky motorcycle stunt at a local golf course. It’s unclear how much time passes between any of these episodes. Licorice Pizza plays like a slideshow of memories, with each moment seamlessly progressing into the next.

Since Gary and Alana reside on the edges of Hollywood, their adventures are mostly rooted in actual showbiz tall tales that Anderson exaggerates for comedic or dramatic effect. Hoffman’s character is based on the formative experiences of Gary Goetzman, a former child actor who became a music supervisor and producer for Tom Hanks and director Jonathan Demme, a hero and mentor of Anderson’s. Goetzman really did start a waterbed company (and later an arcade) and actually delivered one to Jon Peters (Peters was reportedly much nicer in real life). Many of the characters in Licorice Pizza have real-life counterparts: The cantankerous Lucy Doolittle is a stand-in for Lucille Ball, with whom Goetzman acted in the film Yours, Mine and Ours; Jack Holden is William Holden, and the film Alana auditions for is Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, about a romance between a middle-aged divorcé and a younger woman; the motorcycle stunt is based on a similar legend featuring a drunken Evel Knievel.

With Licorice Pizza, Anderson mines the space between fiction and reality to unearth an ineffable authenticity, one that’s more concerned with lived experience than literal truth. It’s not just that almost everything that occurs in the film feels ripped from someone’s life; Anderson also populates Licorice Pizza with regular professional collaborators and trusted members of his personal life to lend the film an even more intimate atmosphere. Having directed roughly half of Haim’s music videos, he not only cast Alana as the lead but included her entire family (two sister bandmates and their mother and father) in the production as well. Andy Jurgensen, the film’s editor, previously cut Anderson’s Haim videos as well as his documentary Junun and his music videos for Radiohead. Anderson’s own family, including his four children and their friends, all play bit parts or appear as extras. Most poignantly, the presence of the young Hoffman casts a subtly spiritual effect over the film, reuniting the director with one of his most cherished actors via his son.

Anderson’s choice of collaborators, combined with filming in the San Fernando Valley, creates a cozy, familial energy, as if he’d literally made Licorice Pizza in his own backyard. The film’s palpable tenderness arises from an amalgamation of formal elements. The camera work emphasizes long takes and scenes, not unlike Anderson’s Haim videos, especially the 14-minute short performance film “Valentine,” which creates a fluidity of motion between the actors and their environments. Similarly, Anderson’s use of ’70s-era camera lenses lends a warm texture to the film’s imagery, rendering it less artificially crisp. Licorice Pizza sports a wistful yet energetic soundtrack, contrasting cuts from well-known artists like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and the Doors with tracks from more off-the-beaten-path artists, including Clarence Carter and Taj Mahal.

Of course, the film’s most winning element, the one most easily perceived on the surface, is the chemistry between Haim and Hoffman, which feels natural and unaffected from the first moment they share the screen together. It helps tremendously that the two look and sound like real people instead of spotless models, but crucially, neither actor reaches for the big emotions and gestures most associated with on-screen romances. Instead, their relaxed rapport communicates bountiful, unexpressed desire. Much hay has been made on social media and in the entertainment press out of the characters’ age disparity, and while Anderson recognizes that teenagers have sexual desires for adults ill-suited to them, the relationship here remains fairly chaste. (It’s worth noting that the film acknowledges the discomfiting nature of Gary and Alana’s relationship, along with the importance of consent and the historically lecherous behavior of older men toward younger women.) Yet Anderson conveys the obvious: These two have made an indelible impression on each other, and even if they’re not meant to be together, they’re still bonded for life.

Though its earnest appreciation for its early-’70s period setting might suggest otherwise, Licorice Pizza is hardly a hollow exercise in nostalgia. The film’s affectionate tone and Gary and Alana’s various high jinks thinly disguise an air of sexual menace that pervades a Hollywood environment crowded with creeps. Licorice Pizza opens with an innocent meet-cute between Gary and Alana, but it’s punctuated by a photographer slapping Alana on the ass; she barely registers it, indicating its frequency. During her audition, Holden leers at Alana with the practice of a veteran, insisting on referring to her as “Breezy” rather than her real name. Later, when he liquors her up, Holden feeds her “war stories” from his life about the dangers of the jungle, but they’re really just taken from his on-set experiences. Bradley Cooper’s hilarious, show-stopping performance as the explosive Peters aside, the character is a walking sexual harassment lawsuit, such as the one filed against the real-life Peters in 2011, which resulted in a judge ordering him to pay $3.3 million to a former assistant. There is no moral editorializing from Anderson in these scenes; this behavior is simply expected in a culture of unchecked fame and considerable wealth.

Anderson depicts the Hollywood of Licorice Pizza as one in a state of flux: a time when the American film industry firmly moved out of the confines of the Production Code era into unmarked territory. But the scene is still filled with old-timers like Holden and director Rex Blau (Tom Waits, playing some kind of John Huston figure) who throw their weight around. A child actor with show business aspirations, Gary speaks the industry language and knows he still has to pay respect to the old guard. While he can move through their thicket of codes and traditions with ease, he also knows his verve will outlast the numerous aging authorities blocking his path.

Alana, however, remains stolid, a defiant young woman seeking purpose and identity, who nonetheless demands respect from the world Gary idolizes and she disdains. She admires Gary’s can-do attitude, guile, and ingratiating nature, yet she constantly pursues men who represent his opposite. That list includes Lance (Skyler Gisondo), another child actor with more swagger and professional success than Gary; the older and supposedly wiser Jack Holden; and Joel Wachs (Ben Safdie), a mayoral candidate whom Alana begins to work with because she sees him as a man of honest conviction—someone who wants to give back to the community instead of profiting off it like Gary with his various businesses and con-man-like exterior.

All these men disappoint her, but especially Wachs, who invites Alana out for a drink but only to press her into service as an emergency beard for his wounded boyfriend, who’s tired of being hidden away. Another real-life character, Wachs was a 30-year city councilman in Los Angeles who wasn’t open about his sexuality until 1999; Safdie plays him as someone so committed to assimilating that he would thoughtlessly hurt his loved ones for a shot at mainstream recognition. It’s after this dispiriting experience that Alana runs back into the arms of Gary, now the proprietor of a pinball emporium located in the same spot as his waterbed business, who’s slowly learning that his dominion extends only to people close to his own age. Generous adults humor his ambitions, but when he tries to control a particularly aggressive older patron at the arcade, he’s immediately belittled because, well, why would someone listen to a kid, even if he’s in a suit?

This undermining of Gary’s authority suggests Anderson’s true intentions and indicates that Licorice Pizza, while generally exuberant and lush, isn’t some uncritical fantasy. Alana and Gary’s romance wears an innocent veneer of young, misguided love, but it reveals itself to be another of Anderson’s explorations of codependency. The two share a mutual fantasy built around combativeness and dissatisfaction, one destined for collapse. Licorice Pizza’s bright, luminous present inevitably conceals a cloudy future. Unlike in other, more typical coming-of-age films, neither Alana nor Gary learns any lessons from their time together. They only know what Anderson has been professing, from Boogie Nights through Phantom Thread: Love hurts, but that’s what makes it fun.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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