Licorice Pizza Review – He’s Fifteen

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In Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest yarn, Licorice Pizza, the lurid streets of ‘70s Los Angeles play host to one of the year’s most troubling romances. 

When self-assured child-star Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), 15, meets the alluring Alana (Alana Haim, brilliant), 25 (or not), while waiting to have his school yearbook photo taken, he falls for her. Hard. PTA commences the film with an explosion in a boy’s bathroom; an omen of sorts to let the audience know Gary is about to be shaken to his core. In pursuit of the alluring Alana, the fast-talking hustler Gary knows how to work the charm, playing off his age and semblance of celebrity (one of the cut scenes from the film showing Gary auditioning for roles he has outgrown) to nab a date. 

She resists, they play coy, but ultimately takes him up on the offer to meet.

It is because of Gary’s diminishing celebrity (the panacea to childhood fame is puberty) and Alana’s yearning for more where PTA establishes the film’s power dynamic, with Licorice Pizza’s romantic angle leaning more into Phantom Thread territory than the fevered Punch Drunk Love. With this said, the mercurial Alana is not one to be controlled, brimming with an ambition to be more than her modest home-life, even if it is so she can prove her sisters wrong. (Her encounters with real-life bandmates and sisters provide many of the film’s best moments; showcasing the antagonising mental-hold only siblings possess.) While Alana exists to Gary as this initial beam of beauty, a bohemian vision PTA imagines in short skirts and protruding nipples, he remains motivated by his interests, choosing to pursue small-time entrepreneurial endeavours and flings with other girls. 

It is where Alana sees Gary’s hedonism, along with the crew of runts he associates with, that we feel the age difference. (Something PTA setups as being a quirk instead of a barrier.) This is not to say that Alana does not indulge in her own pursuits. Her rise in confidence finds her entangled with celebrities, including the boyish Lance (Skyler Gisondo) and the pure-trouble debonair Jack Holden (Sean Penn, a pastiche of actor William Holden). Both become enraged by their acts to emotionally wound one another (whether Gary’s maturity can even realise it), allowing both characters a sense of self-determination (even if Alana is denied the same pleasure-seeking permissions granted to Gary). 

It is in moments like this where Licorice Pizza bends over backwards trying to make this troubled romance work. The film makes efforts to downplay Gary’s youth: His face is awash in blemishes, but he is tall and portly (like an adult male); He is enterprising yet belligerent to those more malleable than him. We are reminded when he is in a suit that he is but a boy; a lamb dressed as a ram. It is a film that tells you what is happening might not be right, but jazzes it up with diegetic needle drops and wistful collapses into each other’s arms. (There is more running going on in this movie than a Tom Cruise flick).

With Licorice Pizza, PTA thoughtfully crafts a complex relationship-drama beating with a penchant for episodic horseplay. The side story involving Bradley Cooper’s bouffant haired, cocaine-fuelled Jon Peters – coming in hard, fast and loud – inspires one of the year’s most thrilling vehicle set-pieces; rivalling that of anything from the Fast and Furious series. Unfortunately, this sensation of going downhill follows the film not only here, but in the film’s frequent longueurs. These acts function to describe the tumultuous effect of Gary’s immaturity, a feat that he dials up and down on pending on his insecurity levels, and Alana’s yearning for self-actualisation. They offer some electric plot points though make the film feel idle.

Licorice Pizza is a film about first love and in the case of lead performances, first times. Haim makes an indelible impression, showcasing a charisma and depth of performance that feels belonging to a seasoned actor. She steals the show in her presentation of a determined figure with big hopes and concerns for her future. With a look, she can go from inviting to disputatious. She carries the film, which unfortunately comes to the dismay of Cooper. While succeeding to showcase Gary’s entrepreneurial smarm, there is an emptiness to his expression that comes across as cold. It is unfortunate as it only goes to highlight Haim’s brilliance, a feat which further reveals the problematic nature of their relationship: His ordinariness contrasts against her spark. 

This review will also note that there are moments involving John Michael Higgins restaurateur mimicking a Japanese accent that, in the case of the screening this reviewer attended, is played to uncomfortable laughs. (It ought to be noted that this character is clearly in the wrong and this concept of sleaze and how men see women is carried throughout the film, albeit to less contributory effect to the story.) It is rather perplexing that a film with a centralised focus on first-love would care to digress in problematic antics without going anywhere with it. The act of racism becomes a joke.

Is PTA making a judgement on values? Is this an affecting love story that doesn’t sugar-coat 1970s sensitivities? Are double standards at play? Do film’s need to be more overt in their depictions of the wrong?

There is no denying PTA as a director of grit and nuance. Being a filmmaker with a keen interest in the sinners of the world, a subject which he captures with an unflinching and deliberate gaze, he rests comfortably in unease. Depending on how you take Alana and Gary’s relationship will inform your feelings on the film. If you can be absorbed into their romance, PTA crafts another fractured romance built on subservience and male desire. For those unable to grasp the confronting age gap, the film becomes both nauseating and perplexing, no matter how adorable PTA thinks their relationship is. 

‘Don’t be creepy, please,’ asks Alana to Gary. Though, it should be a question she asks herself.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Skyler Gisondo

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cinematography: Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bauman

Editor: Andy Jurgensen

Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Sara Murphy, Adam Somnder

Music: Jonny Greenwood

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