Saturday, January 29, 2022

Road to Somewhere: LICORICE PIZZA

The main characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza are a couple of young people constantly on the move. They seem to operate with the unspoken assumption: why walk when you can run? They’re running heedlessly into their futures on an abundance of youthful energy and naive restlessness. One, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), is a sweaty teenage boy with a crush. The other, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), is a twenty-something woman on whom he’s crushing. The fact that they are played by relatively fresh newcomers—he’s Philip Seymour’s son; she’s in the band Haim with her sisters, who play her sisters here, too—gives the movie a genuine sense of fumblingly appealing youthful discovery and charisma. The two of them fall into a funny friendship, finding themselves simpatico in the ways his precociousness (he’s a child actor using his money to start dubious entrepreneurial ventures) and her failure to launch (she still lives at home with her parents) meet. There’s a charge of attraction on his part, but she holds him at a distance from that. They simply enjoy their time together as friends, roaming around California’s San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s. He’s a wheeler-dealer, 15 going on 50, falling into one attempted money-making scheme after the next. She’s not sure what she wants to do with her life, so happily falls into his orbit.

Anderson unfolds their converging and diverging stories through a loose collection of shaggy anecdotal episodes. It’s a movie about that awkward time between when high school seems hopelessly juvenile, but the adult world is still held at a remove of skepticism. As is so often the case with young people, they test their sense of self in every moment, adjusting based on circumstances, comparing to people around them, blustering and bluffing to get by, or receding in the face of a more dominant adult presence. Here is a string of events—by turns funny, yearning, oddball, and suspenseful—that brings these young people’s sense of self more and more into focus for themselves. It’s a process still in motion as they run to the final credits. Through them we meet agents, actors, casting directors, teachers, teenagers, producers, politicians, chaperones, hosts, assistants, parents, siblings, salesmen, restaurateurs, photographers and more.

This assemblage of interesting faces and eccentric personality types is warmly carried out by a wide-ranging ensemble of character actors and marquee names (including Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, Sean Penn, Christine Ebersole, John Michael Higgins, and Mary Elizabeth Ellis). We see each new situation with these various complicated and problematic adult figures through the eyes of our leads. Anderson situates them in a world of flawed or otherwise half-formed aspirations as they scramble toward maturity in the shadows of showbiz. Despite centering the couple, there’s an egalitarianism to the various sequences, a sense that every character on screen is a full, rich, interesting figure in and of themselves. Even people appearing for one or two scenes carry the sense that we could follow them off into an equally enjoyable film all their own. This gives the movie a full sense of lives in motion—pushing forward through emotions and encounters that our leads are working through to get to…somewhere. They’re figuring it out as they go along.

This loose, shaggy one-thing-after-another Anderson gives the proceedings matches his project—from Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood through The Master and Inherent Vice—of treating intimate character pieces with the sweep and detail of a historical epic. The twinned comings-of-age here also fits in with Anderson’s other awkward, inscrutable relationship semi-comedies, like Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread, although that’s also a common thread through his films. I suppose that might make Licorice Pizza a quintessential Anderson effort. It has a long-lens close-up approach, a dazzling specificity of character foregrounded amid casually perfect period recreations that fill the frames around the central focus. Here the 70s swagger of vintage tech and indoor smoking, of burgeoning pop culture happenings and gasoline shortages, is just a fact of life for the characters who try to find their way into who they’ll become. There’s an aimless free-spiritedness to the hustle—and a squinting toward possibility that never quite arrives.

Anderson gives the movie that touch of Altman—long noted as one of his favorite inspirations—with whipping up an ensemble of controlled chaos. Sequences in schools and restaurants, parties, shops, and offices spill rough natural jumbled life out of relaxed wide frames that are casually composed. And yet their filmic beauty effortlessly guides an audiences’ eye with a steady hand and a generosity of spirit. There’s a sun-dappled grainy romanticism of the past, carried aloft on a steady stream of vintage records, and a cool-eyed present-tense perspective knowing these characters are as-yet unformed. The characters may not know where life will take them, but there’s fun to be had in watching them drift through it. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, a delivery truck runs out of gas mid-trip, so the leads white-knuckle their way downhill, gritting teeth as they plunge through intersections and take tight turns. It is a movie, after all, about the exhilaration of coasting.

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