AMC 15 Century City.
The 8:00 pm and 9:00 pm showings of a new film by a newly minted genius filmmaker have sold out. The 10:30 pm showing still has seats. We wait excitedly in line for three and a half hours. Two and half hours after being seated in the packed auditorium and ELO’s Living Thing blasts through the speakers …
Boogie Nights and Paul Thomas Anderson had changed this then 19-year-old wannabe filmmaker.
PTA spoke Valley Kid to Valley Kid in a secret language only Valley Kids knew. It wasn’t just the valley-centric-setting-and-plot of Boogie Nights that charted the rise and fall of Porn Star Dirk Diggler from the glory days of the shot on Film Porno of the 1970s into the VHS murdered the Porno Star 1980s. It was the kidelascope of characters that pushed us all to dive into the oeuvre of Robert Altman beyond Popeye and The Player. It was the way he fetishized places like Ventura Blvd, the still closed Reseda Theatre, the hills of Encino, like any Valley Kid knew by just the look of it. By the time Boogie Nights was released on home video, every Valley Kid wannabe filmmaker had become a PTA acolyte.
It wasn’t just Boogie Nights but Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love that almost made it a badge of honor to be a Valley Kid. Magnolia elevated Valley Stories into high art. Punch-Drunk Love showed us Valley Weirdos like Barry (Adam Sandler) could find love and strength. By the time that Anderson left the Valley to make great American epics like There Will Be Blood, The Master, and The Phantom Thread it felt as though he left much unsaid about the Valley. Inherent Vice his in between psychedelic detective non-mystery-mystery edged around the Valley, Topanga Canyon is as close as we got.
The closest one got to seeing Anderson reconnect with the Valley was his residency as Haim’s du jour Music Video Director. It was Haim that brought Anderson at least back to the Valley as a setting even if it was Music Videos. Though Anderson’s music video’s artistry was on par with many current filmmakers’ feature-length films. Though it was Alana Haim that would be the key for Anderson to bring him back to the Valley and discuss things unsaid. It was within working with the Band and Alana that Anderson would find a Muse to return to the Valley.
Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson sanding off the sharp angles and edges that made There Will Be Blood, The Master, and The Phantom Thread such works of undisputed genius. The strict adherence to formalness is gone. The playfulness of Inherent Vice’s freewheeling rambling nature is here and is as sharp and focused as the formalness of There Will Be Blood. Licorice Pizza is Anderson going back to the sort of shaggy shambling epics that he began his career with. But with the knowledge and prowess of a filmmaker with two and half decades under his belt.
Alana Haim is the first face we see as Licorice Pizza opens at Grant High School. Haim’s Alana Kane is confirming returning High School Seniors have everything ready for their class photo. It’s in this simple parred down tracking shot, one that mirrors the extravagant lushness of the single tracking shot of Boogie Nights, we and Alana meet Gary the “song and dance” man that will frustrate, confound, and elate her and us for the rest of the journey. Gary played by Cooper Hoffman is as freshly and funnily audacious as Tom Cruise was in Risky Business. Gary is Joel’s father before having Joel. The sense of brashness at life’s opportunities in all their various shades is something Hoffman and Cruise both are magically empowered with as performers.
The duo’s, not a couple, back and forth mirrors the classic punchy dialog of the Preston Sturges variety. It isn’t stylized per se as much as it’s imbued with that sing-song timing and elevated understanding of words. Gary may be a “song and dance” man but at his core, he’s a showman, PT Barnum without his niche. He’s pitching Alana from the moment he meets her. He wants to go on a date, but we and Alana can see that this isn’t sexual as much as it is a financial opportunity. Even if he’s 15-years-old we see that he treats Alana with more respect than her current boss, a pervy photographer that greets her with a smack of her ass that punctuates the ending of the tracking shot and scene.
Alana, the character, finds all parts of her life, not just the ass-smacking, frustrating. Her restlessness at this undefined frustration and mid-20s malaise is apparent in the way that she was constantly drawn to Gary’s salesmen bullshit. Though the countering of Gary’s charms is her cool disposition. That is in fact, her superpower against not just Gary’s charms but the charms of the would-be male suitors on her journey. From her father down to Jon Peters (played with great cocaine energy with an ode to Todd Parker the forlorn street hustler of Boogie Nights by Bradley Cooper) she suffers no fools and sees through their bullshit.
In those moments where she does fall suspectable, it’s the exception, not the rule. Be it Jack Holden (played with drunken gruff charm by Sean Penn) or the charismatic Mayoral hopeful Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie in possibly the surprise performance of the year) it is always some sort of inexperience that hinders Alana’s journey. Inexperience rather than stupidity is the key here. Anderson gives Haim the latitude in the script to be a capable woman that never falters into being dumb or the troupe of “I need a man”. The way that Haim plays Alana with the quiet confidence and frustrated rage that no one can see in her world what we see; she’s a badass boss woman that doesn’t have the time to be what the boys (yes, even the men are boys in this one) want her to be.
This is the push and pull of Licorice Pizza. Alana and Gary never understand each other’s intentions. The back and forth never feels manufactured or repetitive. Anderson creates a complex web of relationships, financial/political dealings, affairs of the heart, sexual cravings, and business success and failure that each time Alana and Gary manage to repel each other it feels real and grounded. There is jealousy but it’s the type of youthful jealousy that begets character. Gary and Alana learn from their follies.
Much of the beauty of Licorice Pizza is that Alana and Gary are never trying to “make their way to one another”. Movie Romance has ruined so much of what is truly joyous about relationships and individuals. Licorice Pizzadisplays the simple truth that in the end people come and people go in our lives. This isn’t the end of the world. It is necessary as painful as it can seem.
The first time I watched The Graduate it was a painful experience. That ended with Benjamen and Elaine on a bus for an uncomfortable amount of time. It was clear as day to me that Benjamen and Elaine wouldn’t make it. There was no happy ending for them. It wasn’t until later, close to 25 years later, after a painful breakup, watching that ending how wrong I was. Well … Partially wrong. It is still not a happy ending. But Benjamen and Elaine have had their time and will have more time together. That is beautiful in the way that a reflection of time and of an era can me. That’s the point that I never got about The Graduate. All things end. Love, life, college, marriage, engagements, all of it.
Licorice Pizza in its own astute way shows us how beautiful and necessary it is that all things come to an end. Alana and Gary’s relationship, however it is defined, will end and both will grow. Licorice Pizza mirrors The Graduate in its end in its own way. Rather than a bus ride, it’s a walk in the dark. One that the duo gladly happily takes. Comforted in the fact they have each other for however long they have on that unseen road.
To call Licorice Pizza something as prosaic as a “love story” would be like calling Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander a “family drama”. Deflating all its grandeur, glory, and most of all its humanity. To define Licorice Pizza as anything other than a humanist drama with all the humor, thrills, darkness, and joy that comes with the beauty and recklessness of youth is to do it a grand disservice.