Licorice Pizza

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s quest to make the perfect 1970s movie continues with Licorice Pizza, a living, breathing simulacrum of the sort of film that stalked the landscape before George Lucas came along with changed/ruined (according to taste) everything with Star Wars.

Ironically, another Lucas film, American Graffiti, might have served as a moodboard for his attempt to outdo 2014’s Inherent Vice – itself an attempt to outdo 1999’s Magnolia – along with Robert Altman’s rambling, discursive Nashville, though the storyline deep down is actually A Star Is Born – guy on the way down meets gal on the way up – with a scrappy side order of What’s Up, Doc.

The guy is Gary, a 15-year-old teenage TV star and, in his own estimation of himself, god’s gift to everything. Licorice Pizza opens with him hitting on Alana, a woman 10 years older than him. By the time it’s ended poor Gary, still hopeful that the treat-em-mean Alana will finally yield, has dropped several rungs in social status while Alana’s star is on the up.

This is Cooper Hoffman’s movie debut and though he’s the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s aiming for another namesake, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate era, in his performance as the over-reaching, under-performing young man who’s probably going to succeed in life by dint of simply trying harder than anyone else. He’s entirely convincing. The smart, funny and self-possessed Alana is played by Alana Haim. This is also her first time in front of a camera, if we discount all the music videos (many of them directed by Anderson) she’s made with her sisters and fellow Haim bandmates.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in a car
Bradley Cooper in a short but dazzling cameo

It is all a bit of a cosy family affair – Anderson has known Cooper Hoffman all his life, since he was best buds with Cooper’s father, and Alana’s mother was Anderson’s art teacher at school. She plays Alana’s screen mother. Alana’s father plays her screen dad. Her sisters play her sisters.

It all helps oil the machine as Anderson spins his cast into a freewheeling 360 about the decade not so much as it was – non-white faces are rare in Licorice Pizza – but as it was mediated through the movies. It’s a meta-movie, in other words, though the soundtrack (Doors, Nina Simone, Todd Rundgren) keeps it grounded as does its particular interest in water beds – one of Gary’s various stabs at entrepreneurial activity after he loses his gig on the TV show.

Some nods to the moment seem to have infuriated the Twittersphere – some bizarre racism directed at the Japanese, a casual pat on a female behind – or the bit of it that can’t distinguish a commentary on something for the thing itself.

Either way, as the sassy and smart Alana and the slightly hapless Gary duck and dive from selling waterbeds – is anything more 1970s? – to campaigning for an up-and-coming politician, Anderson sings a song of regret for what has been lost in the intervening decades – community spirit, a belief in the transformative power of democratic politics and the depth model of culture (see Star Wars).

Two firecracker cameos really hit home. Sean Penn turns up as a jackass movie star recreating one of his screen stunts for an adoring crowd. He’s John the Baptist to Bradley Cooper’s Jesus. Cooper plays Jon Peters, the libidinous hairdresser (he was the model for the Warren Beatty character in Shampoo) who became a movie producer specialising in precisely the sort of film that Licorice Pizza isn’t. Each represent the pupating “sovereign individual” of the 21st century in different ways. George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad) also blurs on and off, as the wild man of the water bed, an amusing cameo that is all too brief.

It’s an unashamedly golden-age, rose-tinted nostalgia-fest and, of course, it’s all shot on proper old-fashioned, warm-hued celluloid, the way real movies were (and on old lenses for extra 1970s texture). The licorice pizza of the title, is a reference to the vinyl LP, cultural currency for the boomers, talisman of authenticity for the hipsters. If you’re in neither camp you might not like the film very much.

Licorice Pizza – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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