Paul Thomas Anderson is hands down one of contemporary cinema’s masters. Throughout his career he is a filmmaker who has refused to conform. His characters are unique so much so that they are the key focus over anything the story might be trying to do. So it is with great excitement that Licorice Pizza lands.
Thankfully it is exactly what Anderson fans will have been hoping but perhaps more importantly his most accessible film to date.
Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 the film follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman – son of sadly departed Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim – member of hit band Haim) as they bounce in and out of each other’s lives as they navigate the strange world of adulthood and young love. Gary is a moderately successful child actor but brimming with confidence and entrepreneurial determination. Alana meanwhile is your typical twenty-something, trying to find her place in the world and happy to try anything. Despite Gary’s determination they be more than friends, what soon forms is a bond that, much like the film, just works.
What makes Anderson such a compelling filmmaker is his ability to transport you so exquisitely to a time and place. In Licorice Pizza we are in the 70s, but it never feels like we’re watching the period but living it with the characters. It captures the spirit, the trends and zeitgeist while touching on some of the political issues that resonate still. There are clear parallels between this and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the two would make a great double-feature, in the way both films celebrate a time and place clearly important to their authors.
Some of Anderson’s films, while undoubtedly staggering in their achievement, can feel cold, disconnected, as if the world Anderson is submerging us in is alienating. Licorice Pizza is the polar opposite of this. It is familiar, warm and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. It feels very much like Anderson has been watching a lot of Richard Linklater and said, “I dig this whole coming of age vibe, let’s bring my unique sense of style and humour to it”. And you know what, he’s nailed it.
It is the film most closely aligned with another of his masterpieces, Boogie Nights. While there is no porn industry exposed here it has that same sense of characters trying desperately to find their place in the world, sometimes failing but with every strange encounter growing and developing. There are some truly gripping set-pieces, one that involves Alana driving a truck that has run out of gas down a hill in an attempt to escape an interesting client who Gary might have pushed a little too far. It’s so tense it could easily fit into a ‘70s cop thriller.
As you would expect from an Anderson film that casting is so spot on and wonderfully acted you wonder if these actors weren’t born into their roles. There are some fun cameos from the likes of Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn and in particular Harriet Sansom Harris as an exploitative casting agent. Cooper Hoffman shows he might well be a chip off the old block and inherited his father’s ability to capture your focus whenever he is on screen. His Gary is such a lived in character and this being Hoffman’s first role, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. But the real revelation is Alana Haim. Her performance is feels so lived in, she’s able to ooze confidence, a twenty-something who thinks she’s got it all figured out only to have beautifully glimpsed moments when reality bites. With any luck both leading actors will be seen more and more on the big screen.
A beautiful slice of Americana, Licorice Pizza is a period piece that’s nostalgic, coming of age insights while outlandish always resonate.