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Licorice Pizza


‘Something/Anything’ is the 1972 album by genre-hopping singer/songwriter Todd Rundgren, namechecked in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. A commercial for the record emanates from a car radio as teen actor-cum-entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) slumps into a pit of dejection upon spotting the girl of his dreams, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), hanging out at the burger stand with another guy.

A little in the vein of ‘The White Album’ by The Beatles, ‘Something/Anything’ is a stellar mish-mash of tones and styles, and an example of an artist who is so fully entrenched and consumed by the world of pop songwriting, that it comes across as proof he could do anything. It’s effortless genius. And it is, in its structure, a torrent of brilliant if scattershot ideas, but in the end, these ideas somehow coalesce into something complete and beautiful.

The same could be said of Licorice Pizza, in which Anderson exerts complete mastery over his medium, but in a way that is almost acrobatically louche and nimble. He exudes confidence in a manner that’s never showy or grandstanding – which he perhaps did in earlier films such as There Will be Blood and The Master, where the sheer force of the filmmaking cracks you over the temple (in a good way).

As with ‘Something/Anything’, Licorice Pizza plays out like a stacked double LP, with the first half delivering woozy summer jams – with a couple of 60-second punk blasts tossed in to raise the pulse – while the second is a more conceptual, tripartite affair as our heroes edge ever closer not to adulthood, but to the desire for responsibility and immersion into society, that means jobs, money, marriage.

“Licorice Pizza is, at its heart, a love story about two people who never seem to be in love at the same time.”

Everyone will have their own favourite cuts. And yes, there’s arguably a dud or two on there as well – an idea that was maybe taken out of the oven before it was fully cooked. Yet it works as a singular edifice, a radiant snowglobe capturing a blissful moment of wayward youth and the story of two people whose lives intersect in increasingly eccentric and profound ways.

Licorice Pizza is, at its heart, a love story about two people who never seem to be in love at the same time. This conceit is a masterstroke, as it provides a catalyst for conflict and comedy right up until its charmingly throwaway will they/won’t they climax. Gary is 15 and is in line for his high school portrait, attempting to flatten his greasy side-parting. Alana says she’s 25, but her actual age is never confirmed – considering how she interacts with her family and her surfeit of free time, it seems more likely she’s in her late teens.

In her position as mirror girl for the Tiny Toes photographic company, she meets cute with Gary and, from moment one, he comes on to her with the force of a horny steam train. Yet despite his tender years, he is a gentleman and conducts himself as such: out come the dinner invites, the veiled proposals of marriage and the painfully witty rejoinders. They are met by Alana with an abject horror that’s cut through with a smidgeon of intrigue and lots of emphatic swearing.

At various points she compares this strawberry blonde braggadocio to Robert Goulet, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, Einstein and David Cassidy, which from a screenwriting perspective, fairly well sums him up. Gary, meanwhile, unironically self-identifies as, “a showman”, “a song and dance man.” It’s his “calling.”

From there on in, the film charts their cosily platonic interactions across various get-rich-quick schemes, an oil embargo, a dangerous brush with the Hollywood B-list, a run-in with the cops, a far scarier run-in with film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, chef’s kiss), drinks, dinners, agent pow-wows, and the greatest pinball parlour the world has ever seen.


Gary’s irrepressible moxie tends to be the thing that advances the individual episodes, but one moving aspect of the film when taken as a whole is the subtle ways in which the two protagonists rub off on and inspire one another. True to life, a lot of the things that happen here are forgotten about or discarded as our attention spans direct us down the unknown byways of life. Yet the experiences form lessons which live on inside, perhaps in a way that Anderson doesn’t feel the need to reveal, but which provides the film with its rich emotional arc.

The other thing worth mentioning is that Licorice Pizza plays (and possibly beats) Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood at its own game in its romantic, full-bore depiction of mid-century Los Angeles. Harking back to Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice, this is Anderson’s most satisfying and all-enveloping piece of world-building to date. Yet unlike Tarantino, Anderson doesn’t manipulate the landscape to reflect his own tastes and desires. There’s no sense of preciousness here.

Both filmmakers position themselves as visual cultural historians in a sense, but the difference is that Anderson is more smitten by objectivity and the possibility of discovery. As such, his film offers a more naturally immersive backdrop against which this blithe romance plays out. And like Tarantino, Anderson employs his privilege to manipulate historical fact to better serve the story. He just doesn’t make a big deal about it – to him, all cinema is inherent fantasy.

Licorice Pizza is a slow-release product, something that creeps up on you, inveigles its way into your conscience. It’s silky-smooth filmmaking perfection, bolstered by a full hand of remarkably charismatic star supporting turns from the likes of Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits, and film-stealer Harriet Sansom Harris as Gary’s enigmatically intense agent.

Its bald-faced simplicity is such that many a PTA fan (this writer included) might watch the film believing it to be a piece of hard experimentation that rejects convention and generic boundaries at every turn. And maybe it is by stealth? But, similar to such canonical hang-out films as George Lucas’ American Graffiti, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it can also be taken and relished at face value – as a superfun, arm-flailing dash through life’s rich pageant.

It’s PTA fer chrissakes. The mad title has us even more hot under the collar. 5


If you could produce and bottle enjoyment as a chemical compound, it would taste a lot like Licorice Pizza. 5


Like any LP worth its salt, this is one where you’ll want to be dropping the needle on over and over again. 5

Directed by
Paul Thomas Anderson

Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper

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