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“Licorice Pizza”: Good Times, Bad Times

hen you Google Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Licorice Pizza, you get a list of questions people have asked about it. The first question, amusingly, is “What was the point of Licorice Pizza?” The point, since you may be one of many who ask, is to ramble and stroll, sink into the vibe, tone, flavor. The movie is set in 1973, but is largely unlike Anderson’s ’70s epic Boogie Nights. There’s no sex (though there’s some crude talk about it) and the porn is limited to a glancingly seen newspaper ad. In part, Licorice Pizza is an affectionate and fairly nonjudgmental study of attitudes and personalities that possibly could only have thrived in the early ’70s. The more one thinks about it later, the larger and more enveloping Anderson’s vision comes to seem.

On the most basic level, it’s a study of two young denizens of the Valley, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and twentysomething Alana Kane (Alana Haim) as they learn how to navigate the adult world. Some adult world: most of the grown-ups in it are either cases of arrested development or people charged with serving them and enabling their childishness. Gary may be a minor but he’s already a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood hustle, dining out on his tiny acting resume and leaping for whatever get-rich-quick scheme lands in his view: selling waterbeds, opening a pinball joint. Alana goes along with him, hitching a ride on his ambitions, since she doesn’t seem to have any. The two bicker and hang out — it’s a classic hang-out movie.

Licorice Pizza is structured as a tall tale of youth in the land of dreams; it’s loosely based on the memories of Gary Goetzman, who grew up to produce films by Jonathan Demme and then by Tom Hanks. The movie’s Gary has a lot of drive but is also still awfully immature. However old she is (maybe 25, maybe older), Alana is hardened in some ways but soft in others; she still lives with her parents and her sisters (all played by Haim’s real family; she and her sisters form the rock band HAIM). Gary seems pointed towards legitimacy by way of working for himself, while Alana drifts into volunteering for closeted politician Joel Wachs. Gary wants, and Alana, who doesn’t know what she wants, settles for being wanted. When they’re together, they breathe the same warm air and mingle spiritually, platonically.

Oh, but Anderson sets a lot of pieces moving around the central couple. The San Fernando Valley we see in Licorice Pizza is a mostly safe backdrop for aging actors (Sean Penn as a macho-idiot actor based on William Holden), crazypants producers (Bradley Cooper personifying rich white privilege as superproducer Jon Peters), an oil embargo and the resulting crisis (gas at a whopping 55 cents a gallon! To be fair, that’d be $3.48 now), plus odd details like an atheist Jew attending a shabbat dinner, or the mysterious guy with the 12 shirt who turns up a couple of times. (A Google search will bring you various theories about the 12 guy.) Licorice Pizza at times seems like a spaghetti bowl of unfinished threads, though this isn’t the sort of movie that likes its sentences trimmed and brought to a halt. It’s a moment, an eternal summer, a slice of (licorice pizza) life.

Anderson isn’t Mark Twain; persons attempting to find a plot in this movie will not be shot, though they may be disappointed, even flummoxed. Movies are so expensive, and such a risk now, that we aren’t used to a film that just eases itself into a jacuzzi alongside its characters and digs their energy. But that’s generally been Anderson’s M.O. Shaggy movies like this and Inherent Vice are content to capture a mood, the conflict or harmony of personalities. Haim gives one of the great natural, nothin’-to-it performances, almost innocent in her transparency. Sometimes, actors who are primarily musicians (Courtney Love is another) just give the audience everything without coyness or reserve. Hoffman, who from some angles bears an eerie resemblance to his father Phillip Seymour Hoffman, embraces new experience with all senses open and alive. If you don’t agree early on that these two are worth following wherever they wander, maybe the movie isn’t your thing. I was happy to be in their company in a time and place where bad or worse things were going on unchecked (the casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the day) but random magic also wafted sweetly in the night breeze.

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