Licorice Pizza (2021)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Benny Safdie

Spoilers! The plot is pretty far from twisty, but maybe you haven’t seen this and you’re looking forward to hearing the dialogue fresh or not knowing what classic music you’ll hear from the 1970s.

At the risk of sounding like a stan or a TV critic, most of my favorite parts of this movie involved Alana (Haim) swearing at people. Running at high speed and yelling “FUCK OFF, TEENAGERS!” as she runs into some kids is going to be the gif that survives, but I even preferred a different middle finger to that one. Her sister Danielle (Danielle Haim) tells her that maybe she should stop fighting with people so much, to which Alana replies, Fuck you, Danielle! and storms off. Alana, who is twenty-five, whose parents are established in the enviable world of San Fernando real estate, and whose sisters are much more established than her, needs attention. That need emanates from her, the kind of vibe that’s so strong that it starts to develop an odor if you’re indoors with it. The kind of attention which she can get from getting into fights with people and being tetchy is pretty good, and it also gives her the excuse to vent some spleen when she’s roiling at not being paid attention to the right way. All the same it must not compare to the fully positive, adoring attention that she knows other people get and which she has not been on the right side of. Enter Gary Valentine (Hoffman), roundfaced and redheaded, who sees her with a mirror and a miniskirt and proceeds to mack on her as best he can while he’s in line for a school photo. We’ll find out in time that Gary really only has a single move, and Alana happens to be precisely the kind of person who gets sucked in by it. Like a cat rubbing against a person’s legs, Gary has a way of making people feel like he’s chosen them specifically. We hear him use direct address on the phone like the born salesman he is, because he knows instinctively that those personal touches make him more endearing. He knows that being confident and snappy and a little weird makes him stand out, as evidenced from his “Fat Bernie” brand which changes from waterbeds to pinball. And he knows he’s got Alana from the first, because all her protestations about him being fifteen and her being twenty-five don’t end with her saying, “Fuck off, teenager.”

One of the strangest assumptions that I think many of us make about movie couples is that once they get together, they stay together forever. Licorice Pizza ends with Gary and Alana running to each other rather than towards each other, followed by a whispered affirmation of affection, and then credits which unfold over their silhouettes in twilight. This is a movie about the seeds of a love affair, but it’s not a particularly romantic movie because Licorice Pizza has no real sense of finality to it. It has none of the heartbreak, obviously, of movies that end a relationship full stop through death or migration. Nor is this a fairy tale, like The Princess Bride or choose-your-favorite-Disney-animated-movie. Licorice Pizza goes to real lengths to screw around in a realistic playground, creating spoofy versions of people like William Holden (Sean Penn’s “Jack Holden” is a genuinely incredible facsimile of Network-era Holden, makes Adam McKay’s stuff look truly amateurish), producer John Peters (Bradley Cooper), and politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). If it is a fairy tale, then it’s a fairy tale with a Felliniesque touches, and those tend to come with expiration dates. What happens after Amarcord ends gives that movie an extra lamination of melancholy, and that dusky credit sequence in Licorice Pizza is doing similar work. It’s the last stretch of whatever weird romance there is between Alana and Gary, two people who only like the beginnings of things.

The Fat Bernie’s chain of waterbeds and pinball palaces only gets Gary so much satisfaction, and it’s clear that they’re both more trouble to him than they’re worth. The acting career that he seems to have gotten himself into is something he doesn’t seem to feel any pressure to stick with. And Alana’s various exploits, whether they involve her driving a truck or getting into politics, are the kinds of things someone does when they don’t really know what it is they want to do. Is she going to bring Gary to Shabbat the way she tried with Lance (Skyler Gisondo)? Is she going to follow in his footsteps indefinitely? (The actress phase she goes through is fertile ground for a number of good showbiz jokes, but it is left behind so quickly.) Is he going to be fascinated with her when she’s someone he’s had as opposed to someone he might have? In a film that has as many strokes of genius as a Dirk Diggler picture, there might not be a more scathing one than Sue Pomerantz (Isabelle Kusman). Sue is a girl about Gary’s age who comes to the waterbed emporium, and Gary is immediately taken with this kid who surely did not wander in to purchase the latest in mattress technology. Alana, who is wearing a bathing suit at the behest of a tenth-grader, is trying to do incongruously adult things to drag Gary away from Sue, such as drawing his attention to some paperwork. If Alana in a bathing suit inviting Gary into the office isn’t going to get him to walk away from another kid who hasn’t taken a physics class yet, then it’s hard to imagine what could.

Gary and Alana’s time together is necessarily short, the kind of thing that both of them will roll their eyes at by the mid-’80s. There’s a lot of running in Licorice Pizza, and there are at least as many extended tracking shots as there are scenes where people are sprinting one place or another. Gary’s little battalion of assistants sprint along the sidewalk with him, passing out flyers. “Life on Mars?” plays as Gary runs through a long line of cars. Alana is running after a cop car when she tells those teens what for; she and Gary run the opposite direction together afterwards. It’s a movie which luxuriates in that active feeling, the boundless energy of being young and not really knowing any better. Even the movie’s most stressful scene is one which is all about being in motion and not being able to stop. Anderson finds his inner Henri-Georges Clouzot for an extended sequence where Alana has to take the waterbed truck, which has run out of gas, down a series of hills and in reverse. Alana proves herself to be a steely-eyed missile man in this particular endeavor, which ends with the boys getting some gas to bring back to the truck once it’s on level ground again. Alana looks on a little wearily from the curb as they pretend to ride the gas cans like horses, which rapidly turns into various sucking and thrusting in the dawn. Ah, to be young again.

Anderson been working long enough that he’s now made a loose trilogy of movies in the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, which I’m sure will turn into a Criterion box set with some trippy art eventually. Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice are answering the major question that Licorice Pizza absolutely raises and even pokes fun at sometimes. When the gang arrives to deliver the waterbed to Peters’ home, the report given to Barbra Streisand is that four kids and a girl have come to do so. It’s hard to argue with the accuracy of this report, which is especially funny because it’s impossible not to watch this movie and wonder where the heck all the adults are. We’re a long way away from Home Alone, for example, where there’s a big kerfuffle at the grocery store about what Kevin is doing there by himself. This is a film where a high school student runs through two different businesses at the same storefront, which is just gobsmacking. The answer is that, according to the other two films in this loosest of trilogies united by location and killer soundtracks, the adults are reeling and thus high and/or jacking off. It’s a suggestion that Licorice Pizza carries on in its own way, because excepting Gary’s slightly absent mom, Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), every adult we run into seems pretty lit in one way or another. Jack Holden does a motorcycle stunt over a flaming section of the local golf course, set up impromptu by the equally loaded director Rex Blau (Tom Waits), and while it’s hysterical it’s also the world that Gary and Alana are trying to insert themselves into as significantly less screwed up people. It’s what makes the Joel Wachs section of the film, which has some weird little Taxi Driver vibes where Alana Haim is playing Cybill Shepherd, surprisingly meaningful. It’s late enough in the film where I didn’t quite expect the revelation that Wachs is a closeted homosexual trying to keep his partner, Matthew (Joseph Cross), in there with him. It’s not long after Alana has escorted Matthew home as cover for Joel that she decides to head back to Gary as fast as her two feet will take her. Joel, a person with ideals and plans and ambitions, is a shocking taste of what feels like tantalizing adulthood for Alana. It’s no surprise that disillusionment with that carefully moussed version of what it means to be grown-up sends her back to her fifteen-year-old.

One thought on “Licorice Pizza (2021)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s