|Director Paul Thomas Anderson|
|Bradley Cooper on the set |
LICORICE PIZZA B USA (133 mi) 2021 ‘Scope d: Paul Thomas Anderson
A nostalgic 1970’s, coming-of-age, love hurts fantasy, from the director previously responsible for eight features, including HARD EIGHT (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), the last three all set in the San Fernando Valley of greater Los Angeles, yet also There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and Phantom Thread (2017). While mostly a personal exploration that feels recognizable and even contemporary, this is a return back to life in the Valley of the director’s childhood, where a common theme throughout Anderson’s career has been a myriad of hustlers and con artists, suggesting he’s a man who enjoys a good scam, including gamblers, pornographers, motivational speakers, oilmen, cult leaders, a stoner private eye, and the dark side of Adam Sandler’s comic persona, which may be a prevalent theme of growing up in Los Angeles, where people never age, apparently, but remain stuck in a kind of arrested adolescence, living in a narcissistic world that revolves totally around themselves, where little else matters. Anderson tends to take a subset of American culture and use it to explore themes of loneliness, alienation, and a disconnection from family, with Magnolia still thought of as his most epic and intimate film, largely influenced by the death of his father, Ernie Anderson, who was a voice artist, with this director being the only one of his children to follow him into the movie business. In his more recent films, Anderson’s central characters of Doc Sportello and Reynolds Woodcock were narcissistic, center-of-the-universe figures who felt the world revolved around them, with the director surrounding them with the meticulous detail of their working environment, submerging themselves into it with the entirety of their being. But then there is the sour relationship between Barry and his sisters in Punch-Drunk Love, the destruction of the relationship between Daniel Plainview and his adopted son H.W. in There Will Be Blood, leading to the tragic figure of Daniel, a staggeringly rich oilman, living alone in his massive house with no one but his servants, and there is Freddie Quell in The Master, a traumatized war veteran whose drunken wanderings and search for any human relationship lead him to a charismatic cult leader, with roots back to the misogynistic pick-up artist/motivational speaker of Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia. All of this takes us back to P.T. Barnum, an American showman, businessman, and politician remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, who coined the expression, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The consumer culture of Los Angeles, with its vast advertising and show business culture, suggests there’s an ever-growing business founded upon the principle of wanting to take your money, giving rise to start-up entrepreneurs and fly-by-night schemes. Every new Anderson film reminds us of that lengthy LA Times profile written by Patrick Goldstein back in 1999, The New New Wave - Los Angeles Times, revealing a brash new Hollywood auteur who had the ear of Francis Ford Coppola and dined with Warren Beatty, who wanted to be seen in public with his famous friends and drawn into the spotlight that is Hollywood while exhibiting complete creative freedom and an exacting level of control over every aspect of the production and release of his films, right down to editing the trailer himself. Shot on 70mm by Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Bauman, this is lighter and sunnier than previous Anderson pictures, a brightly embellished and absurdly exaggerated remembrance of things past, with long takes, slow dollies, and contemplative pans galore, where movement is a constant in this film, yet what inevitably stands out are those memorable tracking shots of the lead protagonists running, all rooted with Denis Levant in the Léos Carax film Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) (1986), set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” Modern Love - Mauvais sang (2:45), recreated by Noah Baumbach in Frances Ha (2012) with Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha  - Dance in the street - YouTube (1:08).
While these protagonists are significantly younger, it nonetheless offers Anderson another glimpse into the myriad of his youth, using real-life stories told to him from childhood friend Gary Goetzman, a hero and mentor of Anderson, now a film and television producer, but he was a child actor who starred in a Lucille Ball film YOURS, MINE AND OURS (1968), appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and eventually started a waterbed company and a pinball arcade, as depicted in the film, actually delivering a waterbed to the home of Jon Peters, a former Hollywood hairdresser to the stars and rampant womanizer, supposedly the model for the Warren Beatty film SHAMPOO (1975), also a former partner of Barbara Streisand. The outlandish sequence of events becomes the framework for the film, always exhibiting a masterclass of topical musical selections, as this boy meets girl scenario is based on an improbable romance, which is more of an extended flirtation between a 15-year child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a girl ten years older than him, Alana, Alana Haim of the pop band Haim, a sisters pop rock group, with the Anderson-directed music video preceding the film in theaters. While the phrase Licorice Pizza is never used in the film, it is named after a former chain of record shops in southern California, basically an excuse for Anderson to visualize a series of anecdotes immersed within that whitewashed urban landscape where minorities don’t exist except on the margins, offering a sharply detailed and satirically motivated, yet wry commentary on growing up fast, creating a netherworld between childhood adolescence and adulthood, a place both groups seem to linger for a prolonged period of time, a place between Hollywood and suburbia, becoming a purgatory of lost dreams and adolescent fantasy. Let’s call it Encino. Gary is something of a high school hustler and a schemer, possessed with charisma and charm, always coming across as overly familiar, on a first name basis with everyone he meets, as if he’s known them forever. Alana, on the other hand, feels stuck, working as a photographer’s assistant, yet bored, having no ambition to aspire to anything else, having never quite found her place in the world, so she’s kind of going through the motions. When Gary immediately hits on her while waiting in line during high school class picture day, she disparages him as just a kid, yet his go-getter attitude is truly inspiring, swooning interest, as if romantically infatuated, immediately asking her out to dinner. While they immediately click in wisecracks and satirical comebacks, she actually has fun with the verbal sparring, as the kid more than holds his own, surprising herself by actually showing up, but what does she have to lose? It’s not like anything better is going on in her life, surrounded by older sisters who pretty much frown upon her anyway, with her actual family playing themselves in the film, while Anderson’s own family, including his four children and their friends, all play bit parts as well. Why not also include Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad, Tim Conway’s son, and Steven Spielberg’s daughter, and feature the Mikado Restaurant, the first Japanese restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, and the now defunct Tail O’ the Cock restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, just a block west of Coldwater Canyon, a place where stars ate while working at nearby Warner Bros. Studios and CBS Studio Center, but their specialty was serving martinis, including the traditional business meeting three-martini-lunch. Both Gary and Alana are reckless and impulsive, easily carried away by stupidity, wanting to be somewhere, but really finding themselves nowhere at all, with Gary completely full of himself, thinking the world completely revolves around him, while Alana remains stuck in an existential crisis, wondering why on earth she’s hanging out with a 15-year old kid and his friends. Yet they have fun together, taking a plane ride to New York where she acts as his chaperone for an appearance on a television talk show, with Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole) doing her best Lucille Ball impression, growing thoroughly exasperated by his prankish behavior, perhaps putting the kibosh on his child acting career, where once you enter puberty, you’re done.
While there’s a sweet innocence to their growing relationship, never devolving into sex, it’s a passionate affair nonetheless, with Alana helping out on his grandiose, get-rich-quick moneymaking projects, joining in on the genuine enthusiasm, where at least for a short while they feel like they’re actually doing something important, fulfilling an order or providing a service, yet Gary remains something of a goofball, while Alana always remains outside the showbiz world that he thrives in, something he braggishly reminds her about all the time, yet she has the chutzpah to remind him, “You’re not my director,” so there are rough edges that at least suggest to viewers this will never work. Yet somehow, it does, even if the attraction is largely lopsided at first, buoyed by male hormones, yet there’s no one else in her life filling the void, often leading to moments of petty jealousy and extreme disappointment. Arguably the most emotional sequence happens on her own, attaching herself to a struggling mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs (Bennie Safdie), where she’s called late at night to meet him in a restaurant, only to discover he’s gay, and that she’s been unceremoniously called upon to escort his gay lover home, Matthew (Joseph Cross), both clearly embarrassed at having to hide who they are, offering him a hug when no words could possibly capture that feeling of deflation. Still, the couple captures the complicated emotions that come with an untraditional relationship, exploring all the ecstatic highs and devastating lows of young love, with Alana questioning what her future will look like if she continues hanging out with him. Gary is used to the rigors of being a child star, but discovers he’s in no way prepared for adult responsibilities, while Alana is also put in an uncomfortable position, learning that she hasn’t quite figured out what she wants to do, an age-old dilemma for teenagers and budding adults. She’s embarrassed to have awkward conversations with her family about her ambivalence regarding having no plans for the future, yet both characters realize that they have much more in common than they initially expected, with both exhibiting a fierce independent streak. While Gary and Alana are more mature and self-sufficient than most other romance films about young adults, they aren’t sure how to express their feelings for each other, as he is very open and often manically expressive, while she is more reserved and emotionally closed off. This certainly bears a similarity to Tarantino’s equally nostalgic trip down memory lane in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019), but there’s no historical revisionism going on here, with Anderson creating a warmer, hilariously deadpan comedy filled with absurdist moments that may have more in common with Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) with its 15-year old protagonist (also born into Hollywood royalty) with romantic aspirations who similarly speaks to adults as if he’s on the same level and has his own harebrained schemes that run amok, or the self-deprecating humor of Submarine (2010), which follows a lonely 15-year-old who makes a checklist of everything he wants to accomplish by the time he graduates high school, where at the top of the list is having his first relationship, which doesn’t exactly go as planned. And of course, the granddaddy of all nostalgia films is American Graffiti (1973), with a wall-to-wall musical score referencing the 50’s, similarly exploring the music, culture, and social changes that defined young people during this particular period in history. Although layered in humor, Anderson tells an authentic story about real people, whose hopes, fears, and emotions are genuinely realistic given the circumstances they are in, a skill Anderson shares with one of his contemporaries, Richard Linklater, the unofficial king of hangout movies and maker of Dazed and Confused (1993) and Everybody Wants Some !! (2016), both revealing the hilarious and heartbreaking mistakes that young adults make when left to their own devices with no adult anywhere to be seen. While Gary and Alana are very naive, they may have more wisdom than any of the adults in the story, revealing something about fading Hollywood movie stars, like the heavily inebriated Sean Penn as an aging William Holden and Tom Waits as filmmaker Mark Robson, or the breakout performance of Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, embellished with a comic exaggeration, as they cling to their youth with a kind of delusional obsession by continually reliving past glories, apparently lost without them, pathetically viewing them as highlight reels on a continuously repeating cycle, sadly embellishing their stories over cocktails to anyone willing to listen. Although looking back at a pivotal decade of social change in this country, where the divisive stain of the Vietnam War was still everpresent, the environment Alana faced included the Women’s Liberation Movement in full swing, Roe v. Wade had recently legalized abortion, more women were college educated than any other period in US history, yet only 13.3 per cent of those with a BA degree entered the work force, while the oil crisis was an alarming reminder that economic stability was not certain, which may explain why Alana is queasy about the future, yet Anderson doesn’t really address any of that, which may reveal his limitations as a director, never really addressing social concerns, creating instead an apolitical film that is a reminder of what it feels like to be young. Despite the wide breadth of years between them, they bring an unbridled enthusiasm to the screen, free to screw up and make mistakes on their own, with a tendency to pull the audience in with the rush and mad exhilaration of a wild ride.