Licorice Pizza review – so many strong elements, so many issues

Licorice Pizza review

Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

There’s an often made complaint that people in movies don’t look like normal people. They’re insanely good looking, with perfect teeth and finely done hair and so on. This is of course bull crap – watch any film by Mike Leigh, and you’ll see normal teeth and often quite poorly done hair. It also pre-supposes what beauty is and how it can be in the eye of the beholder. But, if we take the standard idea of what traditional mainstream beauty is then it’s at least somewhat interesting that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film opts for two leads that at least look like normal people.

Licorice Pizza follows child actor Gary Valentine, on the cusp of turning sixteen when he meets twenty five year old Alana, a woman lost at sea in life, unsure of what she wants. His insistence that they are meant to be together both annoys and charms her, and over time as Gary tries different avenues to find his purpose in life, their paths meet over and over.

Anderson is not the most rigorous of directors. His films are often flabby and overlong, sometimes meandering. He is, in many ways, like Quentin Tarantino. Both men started their careers with low-key crime dramas, before getting a reputation for making prestige films that launch the careers of new actors and save the careers of older ones. One might argue that Boogie Nights is as important a 90s movie as Pulp Fiction. If the two men are similar then Anderson’s Samuel L. Jackson is Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his Leonardo DiCaprio is Daniel Day Lewis.

It’s a fitting and apt comparison given that at times Licorice Pizza plays a lot like a companion piece to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Mixing real Hollywood figures with fictional ones for a story that is at times charming and others irritating in the extreme. 

A lot of praise has gone to Alana Haim of the band Haim for her lead role as Alana. She an unabashedly Jewish character, awkward and unsure of what to do with her life – looking for a reason to exist. In many ways she matches Marky Mark Wahlberg’s uncertainty in Boogie Nights. Haim is good, even if it’s not much of a stretch given she’s playing a role called Alana, and her sisters play her sisters.  Alana as a character is a tough one, she needs to be likeable enough so that her not-quite relationship with fifteen going on sixteen year old Gary isn’t gross, but also aloof enough that you can understand why a kid like Gary might yearn for her.

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza.

Cooper, son of Philip Seymour, Hoffman has bigger hurdles. One, he’s the son of one of the previous generation’s greatest actors. Two he’s making a film with his late father’s best collaborator. Three he’s playing a role that on the surface needs to have a hapless charm about it, but also a driving force which allows you to buy into the idea that a sixteen year old would start a waterbed business – no seriously. 

The central push of the will they / won’t they isn’t as problematic as the internet would have you believe. Despite questionable actions made by Alana, she’s pretty steadfast in her refusal to date Gary. Admittedly, her not just saying a blunt ‘no’ and never making contact with him is made all the more complicated by her going to dinner with him, agreeing to be his chaperone at times, and working for nearly every business venture he embarks on. But, the film often plays this in a coming-of-age yearning on Gary’s part. He wishes he could get this girl who he sees an impossibly cool but who in reality is just a little unsure of what she wants.

There are actually larger issues than that romantic / not romantic subplot. One is that for some reason John Michael Higgins — venerable comedian and frequent Christopher Quest co-hort — has a small role as a restauranteur who marries Japanese women and mocks them with a faux asian voice. This in itself might be telling of the time when Fu Manchu was a popular character and yellow face was still happily employed by major films. But the lack of pushback from other characters leave a sour taste, and the fact that the character swaps one Asian wife for another and no character notices smacks of cheap racism for a gag.

Moreover, the film itself is structurally flawed. The film has a loose feel, that’s Anderson’s thing. None of his films are tightly wound narrative features. They follow an idea or a theme, weaving moments and character – and that’s fine. But more than any other of his films this feels like a series of episodes mashed together. Perhaps as a miniseries this would seem less problematic but the film keeps ending only to start up again with a new section. We see Gary go to New York for a TV thing, then the waterbed business, then Alana dating a movie star, then the waterbed business again, it all feels very loose and a little pointless.

That is until Bradley Cooper shows up as notorious asshole producer Jon Peters. Peters, accused by many for sexual misconduct, in real life was such an awful person Tim Burton swore of superhero films following Superman Lives, Kevin Smith turned his experience on that film into a stand up routine and Peters, despite being an executive producer on Man of Steel was banned from the set by Christopher Nolan.

Here he’s seen as a bully, a sex pest and a quick to anger monstrosity. It’s played for laughs but also as a searing critique of what was seen as okay at the time in Hollywood. Peters was a big deal in film until the 2000s, and Cooper plays him like a barely repressed ball of aggression. His short scenes are the best of the film and the entire caper surrounding the gas shortage is the film’s strongest complete with a whole sequence of a truck rolling down a hill. Had the film kept up this, pardon the pun, momentum then this could have been a fun comedy-drama about hapless kids and the monstrous spector of the film industry.

Instead, Anderson has made a frustrating film that has so many good elements, and so many elements that are issues. Like it’s title it sounds tasty but three bites in it’s too sickly to enjoy fully.

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