Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most unique filmmakers in modern cinema, and for good reason. The majority of his output has been critically acclaimed, and two of his movies—1997’s Boogie Nights and 2007’s There Will Be Blood—rank among my favorites of all time. For over a month now, I had been hearing raves for Anderson’s newest, Licorice Pizza, which was playing exclusively in a 70mm limited engagement up until it came to theaters everywhere on Christmas Day. I finally had the chance to see it on the big screen, and it simply did not live up to the hype. I have a laundry list of issues with the movie, even though it is gorgeously filmed and immaculately acted. The world and atmosphere is etched out in painstaking detail, but the plot has been excised in pursuit of a shaky love story between two flawed characters.
Set in 1973 San Fernando Valley, Licorice Pizza charts the highs and lows of will-they-or-won’t-they potential couple Alana (Alana Haim), a 25-year-old school-picture photographer, and Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old aspiring actor. Putting aside that this age gap is indeed very troubling, Gary’s progression as a character is mainly relegated to being a horny teenager chasing after numerous dreams. From budding actor to waterbed salesman, Gary is curious and committed, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper, with a charming naivety. Alana does not fare any better, pursuing interests like acting and later, a career in politics. She is both targeted for her “Jewish nose” as well as celebrated for it. While both of these lead performances are strong, I wish they were backed up by a sharper script.
Despite what the advertising suggests, Bradley Cooper’s role as Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend, Jon Peters, amounts to less than ten minutes of screen time. He does a terrific job, nonetheless, as a hilarious weirdo obsessed with “tail” who threatens physical harm on Gary’s brother if they fuck up his house. The only time my theater audience reacted with laughter was during Cooper’s scenes. Less successful is Sean Penn’s depiction of famous actor, Jack Holden, who comes across smarmy and unlikable. He too is given maybe ten minutes worth of time in which to convey his character, of whom there is little-to-no consequence on literally anything else in the movie. Santa Clarita Diet‘s Skyler Gisondo is great in the first third of the movie, before quietly disappearing after Alana confronts him about his circumcision status.
This film goes off on so many random tangents that I am not even sure where to start with my complaints. I am all for meandering movies, but there needs to be a narrative purpose to these asides. Otherwise, what is really the point? A gay politician subplot, a wrongful arrest, a mysterious man wearing a “12” shirt, and a gas station hijacking—so many things here amounted to absolutely nothing, and that is without the discussion of the troublesome age gap. I get that this angle was what inspired Anderson to write the movie in the first place. However, if roles were reversed, portraying an older man preying on a younger girl, how much backlash would we have here?
In trying so hard to emulate the style of filmmaker Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson loses the singularity of his own voice. It comes across as a poor imitation. In the end, Licorice Pizza is just all over the place. Nothing was consistent; it is certainly a well-made film aesthetically, crippled by its dead-end subplots. When it all feels this random, how can one find the beauty or enjoyment out of a troublesome love story? I think the reaction the audience is supposed to have when this movie concludes is one cheering for this tale of first love to succeed beyond its transparently electric borders. Instead, I could only muster a shrug at enduring a film that cares more about the time period it is portraying, rather than depicting an engaging and propulsive story.
Licorice Pizza makes a pitch for the reclamation of the waterbed, now in theaters everywhere.