Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature, the amiably shambolic Licorice Pizza, feels like the most autobiographical film the 51-year-old writer-director has made to date, even if the script was based on someone else’s memories: namely, those of the child actor turned successful producer Gary Goetzman, whose stories Anderson heard while they were both working for the late maestro Jonathan Demme.
Like Goetzman, Anderson grew up in Southern California, with his high-school years coming about a decade after the early-’70s era when this film is set. And like Licorice Pizza’s teen hero Gary (Cooper Hoffman), Anderson also grew up on the fringes of the entertainment industry. His father, who died in 1997, was an ABC voiceover announcer and the former host of a block of local late-night horror-movie programming, the kind of merry-prankster figure who pops up again and again in his son’s California-set work. No one is fonder of a small-time wheeler-dealer than Paul Thomas Anderson, and Gary’s last name is “Valentine” for a reason: the man behind the camera clearly loves this brashly self-confident boy, not least because the actor playing him is the 18-year-old son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s longtime collaborator and close friend.
The other half of the May/late-June pairing at the heart of Licorice Pizza (she is 25 to his 15) is Alana Kane, the fictional alter ego of the singer Alana Haim. From the moment Alana first appears, resplendent in a miniskirt and wedge sandals, in the breezeway of Gary’s San Fernando Valley high school, she radiates a winning mix of cocky bravado and goofy vulnerability. Alana, who is working as the assistant to a school portrait photographer, is sharp-witted, sardonic, and ambitious without quite knowing yet what she wants to be. To the instantly smitten Gary, and to the audience, she seems like a movie star in the making.
Though she laughs off his clumsy attempts at flirtation, the two soon establish a prickly, competitive bond that’s somewhere between friendship and business partnership. When Gary, a part-time working actor with a busy single mother, needs an adult chaperone to travel to a publicity appearance in New York, he convinces Alana to accompany him as his “guardian.” Later they try unsuccessfully to launch her in her own acting career, with Gary as her enthusiastic if less than knowledgeable coach. When that idea goes south, they team with some of Gary’s schoolmates to start a business selling and delivering the latest in sleazy Los Angeles sophistication: waterbeds. That venture in turn gives way to a teen-friendly pinball parlor called Fat Bernie’s, which Gary presides over with the expansive bonhomie of a Vegas casino owner.
It’s in this delirious middle stretch, when a series of A-list movie stars appear in extended cameos as other, thinly disguised A-list movie stars, that the movie hits its stride. A series of vignettes reveals a shadow Los Angeles that co-exists alongside Alana and Gary’s sunny suburban world. At the Tail o’ the Cock, the Studio City steakhouse Gary treats as his personal social club, they meet a hard-drinking, William Holden-esque actor named Jack Holden (Sean Penn), whose attempt to pick up Alana is derailed by his own sensation-seeking lunacy. Delivering a waterbed to a fancy address, they encounter Jon Peters (a hilariously committed Bradley Cooper), the real-life celebrity hairstylist and legendary womanizer who is said to have been the inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo. The comic chase that ensues when they run afoul of this paranoid, coked-up horndog is as close as the movie gets to real suspense.
Licorice Pizza’s structure is shaggy and organic. Though the dialogue is too laden with well-placed zingers to have been improvised on-set, there is a sense that the story is bubbling directly out of its creator’s brain, the freewheeling camera work (by Anderson and Michael Bauman) expressing his ideas as directly as a pen put to paper. The soundtrack is a mix of period-appropriate needle drops (David Bowie, Suzie Quatro, Paul McCartney and Wings) and a shimmering Jonny Greenwood score. The image, shot on 35mm film, is somehow period-appropriate too, all lens flares and fluid tracking shots, with a propulsive forward motion that mimics the young characters’ boundless and still uncontained energy.
Anderson’s work has always been indebted to that great cinematic poet of Southern California hippie culture, Robert Altman. The sprawling, pinwheeling world that surrounds Alana and Gary as they barrel around the Valley making sometimes regrettable choices recalls, in particular, the prismatic early-’70s L.A. of Altman’s The Long Goodbye, a place full of larger-than-life characters and enigmatic encounters. But for all its shabby romanticism, Licorice Pizza’s vision of latchkey-kid life in the Nixon administration is not without political and social complications. The energy crisis and resulting gasoline shortages play a recurring role in the story, in addition to providing a backdrop for a thrilling footrace through a line of stopped cars. Late in the film Alana begins working for a progressive young mayoral candidate, Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), whose private life offers a tragic glimpse of one feature of late 20th-century life decidedly not worthy of nostalgia.
Not every attempt to ground Licorice Pizza in a de-nostalgized past bears fruit. A running gag about a white restaurant owner with a series of interchangeable Japanese wives seems meant as a joke about the character’s racism, but the joke lands gracelessly. And the issue of whether Alana and Gary’s quasi-romance violates age-of-consent boundaries is never raised, even though her family (played by Haim’s real-life family, including her bandmate siblings) is shown to be traditional and close-knit. To be sure, the movie is set in a time and place when a high-schooler courting a twentysomething peer would likely not have been the scandal it would be today, but Anderson, whose own oldest child is around the Gary character’s age, might nonetheless have inserted at least one character who objected to the age gap. The only person onscreen who questions it is Alana herself, musing to her sister about whether it’s “weird” that she hangs out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends and concluding, with a measure of self-deprecation, that it is.
Licorice Pizza, whose name comes from a real-life chain of SoCal record stores that never figures in the story, is less a movie than a mood, a linked series of vibes. A grouch might say that the film’s momentum slows in the second half, and that its two-hour-and-13-minute running time could have been trimmed by 20 minutes. But in large part thanks to its fresh-faced stars, the charming Hoffman and the wildly charismatic Haim, I’m hard pressed to think of a recent movie whose world I would have liked to stay in longer.