‘Licorice Pizza’ Review: California Dreaming and Scheming

GARY

“Licorice Pizza,” a shaggy, fitfully brilliant romp from Paul Thomas Anderson, takes place in a 1973 dream of bared midriffs and swinging hair, failures and pretenders. It’s set in Encino, a Los Angeles outpost in the shadow of Hollywood and the birthplace of such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Boogie Nights,” Anderson’s 1997 breakout about a striver’s passage into pornographic stardom. There’s DNA from both old and New Hollywood in “Licorice Pizza,” a coming-of-age romance in which no one grows up.

The film’s improbable teenage hero is Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), another classic striver. A child performer who’s hit maximum adolescent awkwardness, Gary is 15 and aging out of his professional niche. He still performs, but has started to diversify. Yet even as he embraces uncertain new ventures, his faith in himself remains steady, keeping his smile lit and smooth talk oozing. Deranged optimism and self-importance are American birthrights, and if his confidence weren’t so poignantly outsized — and if Anderson were in a tougher mood — Gary would be a figure of tragedy rather than of comedy.

Anderson always maintains a level of detachment toward his characters, letting you see their unembellished flaws, both insignificant and defining. He loves them with the prerogative of any director. But his love for Gary is special, as lavish as that of an indulgent parent, and his affection for the character is of a piece of the soft nostalgic glow he pumps into “Licorice Pizza,” blunting its edges and limiting the film’s overall effect. The gap between what you see in Gary and what he sees in himself makes the character hard to get a handle on, and more interesting. Gary blunders and bluffs, finding success and defeat, fueled by a braggadocio that, much like one of the earthquake faults running under the city, threatens to bring the whole thing tumbling down at any moment.

This instability suits the freewheeling, episodic structure, even if Gary wears out his welcome. The film opens on a school picture day with high-school boys preening in a bathroom and lines of students snaking outside. An amusingly portentous cherry bomb explodes in a toilet and before long Gary is ogling Alana (Alana Haim, the rock musician), an assistant for a creep who’s taking the kids’ pictures. The photographer slaps her ass. Gary is more of a romantic. He’s knocked out by Alana, instantly smitten, a thunderbolt moment that Anderson memorializes with a prodigious tracking shot that gets both the camera and the story’s juices going. Gary has met the girl he’s going to marry even if she doesn’t know it.

Anderson keeps the camera and characters beautifully flowing through minor and major adventures of varying interest. Most of these are inaugurated by Gary’s entrepreneurial hustling, which takes him all over the nabe and sometimes beyond. He dips into bars and restaurants, shops and audition rooms, and belts out a tune in a show where he upstages a cruelly funny stand-in for Lucille Ball (Christine Ebersole), who threatens to castrate him (not really, but the rage is real). He jousts with his enemy (Skyler Gisondo), a wee smoothie who slides in like Dean Martin in his cups, which is as sleazy and silly as it sounds. Gary also gets busted, starts a few businesses, runs from the law and into Alana’s arms, which remain as dependably open as a late-night diner.

ALANA

“Licorice Pizza” has its seductions, most notably Alana. She’s a fabulous creation, at once down-to-earth real as a friend who grew up in the Valley and as fantastical as a Hollywood dream girl. When Alana first walks through Gary’s school, Anderson makes sure to show her in long shot, head to toe, exasperated and slumped, hair and miniskirt gently in sync. This is Haim’s first movie but she has a seasoned performer’s presence and physical assurance. Her expressive range — her face drains and fills as effortlessly as if she were handling a water tap — and humanizing lack of vanity are crucial, partly because she’s a delight to watch and because Hoffman is a frustratingly limited foil.

For reasons that only she knows, Alana agrees to go out with Gary, initiating a relationship that makes no sense but one that Anderson certainly enjoys. She’s about 10 years older than Gary, maybe more. He’s big for his age and taller than her, and with his swagger and belly bulging over his belt, you can already see the used car salesman he might one day become. But right now he’s a kid. “Do you think it’s weird,” Alana asks a friend, while smoking a joint, “that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” Alana says she think it’s weird (it is), but what she believes doesn’t have much bearing on the story and she continually bends to suit Gary’s needs as well as Anderson’s, which don’t include psychological realism.

Anderson asks a lot of Haim: He makes sure we see her nipples at full mast under her shirt and parades her around in a bikini when everyone else is dressed. These moments are in line with some of the more flagrantly obnoxious stereotypes that he folds in, just like a studio hack might have done back in the day while having a witless chuckle. There’s a sycophantic assistant who’s a mincing cliché, and the white owner of a Japanese restaurant who speaks in broken English. Anderson deploys these stereotypes without editorializing, which is a commentary on their use, and just enough timing and attention to make it clear that he’s enjoying tweaking contemporary sensibilities.

These moments are cheap and stupid and add nothing to a movie that throws out a great deal to alternating scattershot and lasered effect: the OPEC oil crisis, water beds, the silhouette of palm trees against a night sky and the kind of stars who no longer shine bright. One of the recurrent beats that Anderson hits best in “Licorice Pizza” is what it’s like to live in a company town like Los Angeles, where everyone is in the business, seems to be, or wants to be, and so keeps hanging on to Hollywood and its promise, whether it’s Gary or the faded and midlevel stars idling in the neighborhood joint. There, Sean Penn roars in as a old-studio lush as Tom Waits and other pals grin on the sidelines.

Throughout, Alana keeps fuming and blazing, steadily lighting up Gary and the film as brightly as Fourth of July fireworks, even as the story slides here and there, and gathers and loses momentum. The movie doesn’t always know what to do with Alana other than dog after her, and it’s a particular bummer that while Anderson makes her an object of love and lust, he shortchanges her sexual desire. Alana may be lost, but she isn’t dead, quite the reverse. She’s a woman who’s alive to the world and aware of her own attraction. But she’s a blank libidinally, as virginal and safe as a teen-comedy heroine. She doesn’t even ask Gary to pleasure her, not that he would know what to do.

Alana deserves better, dammit! Everyone knows it (OK, not Gary) even the Hollywood producer based on the real Jon Peters (a sensational Bradley Cooper) knows it. Resplendently fuzzed, a white shirt framing his chest hair, a kilo of coke (probably) up his nose, Peters appears after Gary starts a water bed company. The business is a long, not especially good story, but Peters, who’s dating Barbra Streisand, wants a bed and he wants it now. This initiates a tour de force sequence in which Alana, who’s helping Gary run things, natch, takes the wheel of a monstrous moving truck. She’s a natural, a genius, Streisand, Andretti, a California goddess, and, as she brakes and slows and goes, Alana gives you a vision of perfection and “Licorice Pizza” the driver it needs.

Licorice Pizza
Rated R for stereotypes, language and teen high jinks. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes. In theaters.

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