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Paul Thomas Anderson’s return to his native San Fernando Valley — the setting of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love — finds wonderful generation-spanning alchemy in the lead casting of another celebrated child of that urbanized Los Angeles County sprawl, Alana Haim. The youngest of the three sisters who form the pop-rock band Haim, she time-travels back to the Valley in 1973 to play Alana Kane, a too-cool-for-school 25-year-old floating through experiences in romance, retail and politics in Licorice Pizza. Creating a character whose warmth and humanity are tempered by hilariously deadpan humor and prickly detachment, Haim makes one of the most exciting screen debuts in recent memory.
The intoxication generated the instant Alana saunters across the widescreen frame — rocking a skort and a center-part drape of silky-straight Cher hair — gives Anderson’s eagerly anticipated film a narrative buoyancy that lasts more or less through its first hour. But the more the restless focus widens to incorporate loopy plot tangents and idiosyncratic vignettes, the more baggy and shaggy Licorice Pizza begins to feel.
Make no mistake, this is an entertaining, Altmanesque fictionalized remembrance of things past, crafted with contagious affection for the period and bursting with eccentric delights — not to mention a punchy soundtrack of late ’60s/early ‘70s bangers (Sonny & Cher, Suzi Quatro, Paul McCartney and Wings, Bowie, etc.), augmenting Jonny Greenwood’s evocative and playfully eclectic score. But unless you feel a kinship with awkward adolescent boys madly crushing on young women out of their league, you might wish for a more robust skeleton on which to hang a two-hour-plus movie.
Some comparison to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems inevitable given the ambling, loosey-goosey structure and immersive nostalgia, even if Anderson’s rose-tinted re-creation doesn’t extend, like Quentin Tarantino’s, to triumphal revisionism of national trauma.
Nonetheless, it’s just as much a love letter to the era when Old Hollywood was making way for New. The feature’s canvas incorporates such figures — thinly veiled or otherwise — as Lucille Ball (Christine Ebersole), William Holden (Sean Penn) and Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper in a wildly exuberant turn as a libidinous cokehead madman in white cheesecloth post-hippie chic. (His 15 or so minutes of invigorating screen time are sure to become one of the movie’s big talking points.) The appearance in small roles of everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio’s father to the offspring of Steven Spielberg, Ted Demme and Tim Conway adds to the insider spirit.
The lovestruck teenager in this scenario is Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a sometime child actor and enterprising business hustler loosely inspired by the adolescent adventures of Anderson’s pal Gary Goetzman, a onetime performer now better known as Tom Hanks’ producing partner.
Hoffman is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who worked so often and so memorably with Anderson — with particularly searing performances in Magnolia and The Master — and clearly his casting here was in part an act of love. The young Hoffman is appealing enough in the role, but those are big shoes to fill, and he works hard to sell the dauntless chutzpah so essential to making Gary believable. Hoffman may well turn out to be a terrific actor, but his screen presence is still too embryonic to carry a movie, especially alongside such a dazzling natural as Haim. “I’m a showman,” says Gary early on. “It’s my calling.” I wish I could have bought that.
Gary comes on strong with Alana while she’s at his junior high school with a photography company shooting yearbook pictures. She’s unimpressed as he rattles off his handful of acting credits: “What are you? You’re a little Robert Goulet, Dean Martin or something?” But, seemingly against her better judgment, she turns up later at one of the watering holes he frequents and is instantly creeped out by his googly eyes and heavy breathing. Still, she finds him amusing at the very least.
When Gary is invited to New York for a talk-show reunion of the 18 kids who starred with Lucy in Under One Roof (a riff on 1968’s Yours, Mine and Ours, in which Goetzman appeared), his mother agrees to have Alana go as his chaperone. But that backfires when the more conventionally handsome, older and smoother teen star Lance (Skyler Gisondo) steals Alana out from under Gary’s nose and they begin dating. (The divine Ebersole is a hoot as Lucy, cigarette holder perched in one hand, gushing effusively over the kids until Gary crosses her, unleashing the monster.)
The film is a rambunctious chronicle of Gary’s impulsive entrepreneurial endeavors, from selling water beds — which yields the demented Jon Peters interlude during a delivery to his house, with Alana driving the truck — to the opening of a pinball palace.
Plagued by doubts about whether it’s weird that she’s hanging out with a bunch of 15-year-olds, Alana drifts away periodically. Gary hooks her up with his agent, played by Harriet Sansom Harris in another inspired, larger-than-life characterization, and she auditions for a project with Penn’s Holden (here named Jack). They end up having martinis at the Tail o’ the Cock in Studio City, where Jack’s pal Rex (Tom Waits) ushers everyone out onto the golf course to restage Jack’s daring motorcycle leap through fire in one of his movies. Eventually, Alana loses patience with Gary’s apathy about everything going on in the world, prompting her to volunteer for the mayoral campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), which feeds her disillusionment in other ways.
Some of these narrative detours have more kick than others, and at times the humor feels forced — as in scenes with John Michael Higgins as the owner of a Japanese restaurant that play like broad sketch-comedy material about the cultural insensitivity of the time. And although it’s enjoyable to see Anderson kicking back and having fun after the meticulously manicured aesthetic of Phantom Thread, it often feels like it’s precisely the connective thread that’s the phantom here.
The attraction between Gary and Alana does gradually become mutual, but it’s not until the very end that their physical relationship goes beyond a light touch of fingertips or knees under a table. The imbalance between the two characters and the actors’ performances makes it difficult to discern much sexual tension building.
Still, there’ll be no shortage of PTA worshippers who’ll be giddy with pleasure at the film’s free-floating storytelling. Even if a theater marquee showing a double feature of Live and Let Die and Charles Bronson in The Mechanic at one point slyly suggests the populist popcorn consumer lurking in the maverick auteur’s heart, the unstructured action sometimes gives the illusion of stream-of-consciousness spontaneity, as if dancing among random memories. The gorgeous walking-and-talking tracking shots in Gary and Alana’s early encounters (Anderson shares cinematography credit with Michael Bauman) are especially seductive.
At its best, Licorice Pizza demonstrates a lightness of touch that hasn’t been so evident in Anderson’s work since Boogie Nights, nowhere more so than in the fabulously lived-in scenes with Alana and her family, played to considerable amusement by Haim’s actual sisters and parents. But the thrilling propulsion of Boogie Nights is matched here only in fits and starts. The movie, particularly in its meandering second hour, often leaves you wondering where it’s going, more in frustration than curiosity.
In those moments, I felt a surge of gratitude every time Haim reappeared. Alana is an earthbound dream goddess in halter tops, hot pants and Peter Pan-collar shirtdresses (Mark Bridges did the glorious retro costuming); she’s whip-smart, acerbic and often irascible, but also tender and thoughtful, an incandescent presence that marks the arrival of a fully formed screen star. More than Gary’s coming of age, it’s Alana’s spiky navigation of the world that keeps you glued. “I’m cooler than you, and don’t forget it,” she tells him in a moment of exasperation. No one will disagree.
Distributor: UA Releasing
Production companies: MGM, Focus Features, Bron Studios, Ghoulardi Film Company
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Heffington, Nate Mann, Benny Safdie, Joseph Cross, Danielle Haim, Este Haim, Moti Haim, Donna Haim, Isabelle Kusman, Destry Allyn Spielberg, George DiCaprio, Iyana Halley, Ray Chase, Emma Dumont, Yumi Mizui, Megumi Anjo, Maya Rudolph, Tim Conway Jr., Griff Giacchino, James Kelley, Will Angarola, Emily Althaus, Milo Herschlag
Director-screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producers: Sara Murphy, Adam Somner, Paul Thomas Anderson
Executive producers: JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Sue McNamara
Director of photography: Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bauman
Production designer: Florencia Martin
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editor: Andy Jurgensen
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Casting: Cassandra Kulukundis
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