Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 29, 2021 3:52 pm 
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A whirlwind tour of early-Seventies southern California entrepreneurship and romancing

The title is the name of a former chain of record stores in southern California whose two words the director says evoke for him a "Pavlovian" sense of "being a child and running around." This is a story not of childhood but precocious young adulthood, though there's plenty of running around: this movie is frenetic, even as it seems to drag a bit due to haphazard organization. Rich in period flavor and rough-edged characters, Licorice Pizza has its own peculiar PT Anderson twang, if not he full resonance of the American auteur's best work. It has been justifiably heralded by Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times for its "first-rate production values and a gloriously memory-drenched 35mm cinematography," and it has much lively action besides, but it never quite seems to be going anywhere except for the next trend or the next scene. We identify not so much with the characters as with their moment.

The protagonist, Gary Valentino, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's son Cooper Hoffman, is a large, gangly, slightly pimply fifteen-year-old who sets out to be the regular date of a twenty-five-year-old woman, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), and never gives up, while pursuing a precocious succession of distracting, era-evoking side schemes. Gary meets Alana when she's a photographer's assistant shooting students at Gary's high school. While pursuing this age-inappropriate romance, Gary grows out of being a media kid, a child "star," into restless entrepreneurship.

Anderson's new film isn't so much the story of these people as it is a studied reconstruction of his pre-youth, the early to mid seventies (he was born in 1970), set in a rambling series of episodes and money-making enterprises. Think water beds and pinball machines. The episodes are arresting and good, but the movie suffers from its anecdotal indirection, which makes the action seem slow, especially since, like so many pictures today, it's overlong. There is a sequence where Alana drives a huge truck mostly backwards without gas (at the height of the 1973 oil crisis, another period moment enthusiastically depicted): down a long hill, around hairpin corners, on and on. The exploit is impressive and well shot, but one forgets what the point of it was, and it looms larger than its importance in the overall action could have possibly been.

Additional interest lies beyond details of period in community subtexts, references woven into the movie's texture. There is a who's-who of great pop tunes of the period, and novelty casting, with whole families playing families and lots of relatives. Leo DeCaprio's father has a small role, and there's a Spielberg kid and a Demme kid in the cast. There's Sean Penn in a sun-tanned cameo not named, but William Holden, and Bradley Cooper as the named and satirically odious producer Jon Peters. Apart from its satires and references, the movie is carried by the energy and unique look of Cooper Hoffman, who seems the more real or at least unavoidable because he's outsized, overweight, doesn't look like a cute movie star (nor does Alana Haim, who's sweet but just this side of plain). To Hoffman, compare Timothée Chalamet - or another actor in this film, Will Angarola - for the way young men in American movies are supposed to look. What Cooper has, revealing some of his late father's genes, is a powerful acting spark: he justifies his position in the lead by the way he fills the screen and never lets go. As a couple Gary and Alana grab us with their appealing ordinariness. Alana Haim, who plays Gary's dream girlfriend/slash/future wife, is a member of the pop musical group Haim with her two sisters, who're also in this film, as are their parents, as their parents. Evidently one needs to explore and appreciate all the side-gossip of the film's making and its participants to appreciate it fully.

Loyalty and a propensity for the comfort zone seem to have dominated the making of Licorice Pizza. Anderson had already directed a number of music videos with the group Haim. The action here takes place in Encino, Ca in the San Fernando Valley where Anderson's Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and Inherent Vice were also set. He worked for two decades with Cooper's father Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was integral to his successes.

Unlike Paolo Sorrentino's impressive new turn to semi-autobiographical but simplified and mythologized coming-of-age material in The Hand of God, Anderson presumably isn't tracing a trajectory of his own development in Licorice Pizza, given its setting in the years when he was no more than a toddler. He's enjoying evoking fads and pop culture of these peculiar years. Not that anything here is vague or generic. Alana has a succession of jobs and Gary has a succession of schemes. She notes the schemes almost with disgust, but she is often part of them as a manager.

At first she seems horrified by his leap into running a pinball parlor the instant the machines are legalized by the California Supreme Court in 1974. But then she meets with disenchantment when she learns the bright young political candidate she's been working for, Joel Wachs (Benny of the directing team Benny and Josh Safdie) is hiding that he's gay, and has invited her for a drink only as cover. She reacts by quitting the Wachs team and rushing to Gary.

The intended meaning of this gay incident seems fuzzy to me. It's not made clear whether we should sympathize with Wachs or deplore his pretenses. Other scenes about circumcision and being Jewish, as well of some uses of racist terms, and (often noted by others) a peculiarly tasteless and unfunny parody of a Japanese accent by a racist restauranteur, are moments when Anderson's giddy screenplay and his meandering sequence of episodes go astray. The trouble with Licorice Pizza is that its enthusiasm is infectious, its direction of the many fresh faces sings, but the two vivid main characters get a little too lost in the movie's even more vivid surrounding details.

Licorice Pizza, 134 mins., had a limited US release Nov. 26 and wider one on Christmas Day 2021. Screened at AMC Bay Street, Emeryville CA Dec. 28, 2021. Metacritic rating: 95%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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