The new movie Licorice Pizza isn't autobiographical; it's set in 1973, when its writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, was three years old. But it feels lived-in, familiar, as though it's full of stories Anderson has been telling for decades. And indeed, those stories have been told for decades. But not by Anderson. Rather, it seems he was fascinated and delighted by the tales told by a friend of his, a Hollywood bigshot named Gary Goetzman who runs Tom Hanks's Playtone production company. Goetzman was a child actor who became a San Fernando Valley entrepreneur as a young man, with a waterbed business and a pinball parlor (once pinball became legal in Los Angeles).
Anderson then mashed up Goetzman's wild stories of his acting/business/political youth with an image that had stayed with the director. One day Anderson saw a teenage boy on picture day at a nearby high school talking up the pretty photographer's assistant who was working on the shoot. And so we have Licorice Pizza, which is about a self-assured 15-year-old actor/entrepreneur named Gary Valentine (the charming Cooper Hoffman) who develops a complex relationship with an angry, smart, unfocused 25-year-old girl named Alana Kane (the absolutely stunning Alana Haim).
The movie is quite wonderful, a loving portrait of a lost Angeleno life that's less superficially dazzling but more grounded than Quentin Tarantino's glorious Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The Valley is drenched in show business—Gary works as a teen actor and gets yelled at by Lucille Ball, Alana has a wild encounter with a drunken William Holden at a Studio City restaurant called Tail o' the Cock, and both of them end up crosswise of the deranged coiffeur/producer Jon Peters. But it's also just a nondescript American suburb where the 1973 oil embargo is producing mile-long gas lines and life is just far more slow and sedate—and where the décor tends to emphasize dark walls and dark shag carpet.
What Licorice Pizza doesn't have is a plot. Plot is always the great weakness in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie; he creates splendid characters and vivid settings but he never seems to know quite what to do with them. When the scenes are as terrific as the ones here, it doesn't matter that much; Fellini's great movies are also borderline incompetent when it comes to finding the thread.
And because Anderson decided to combine the inspiration he drew from of the kid trying his best to woo the older woman with the Gary Goetzman story, Licorice Pizza ends up seeming a bit fanciful. Goetzman was 15 when he appeared in the Lucille Ball movie (Yours, Mine and Ours). He was in his early 20s when he went into business. But our Gary is 15 years old when it begins and 15 years old when it ends and all these things seem to be happening around the same time.
The businesses the real Gary started in the early 1970s make sense when you consider he had attained his majority, but they seem a little dream-like and unreal for a teenager like Gary Valentine. Even in a more modest and simpler time, how exactly could a 15-year-old kid rent retail space in Studio City? That seems more like the knowingly fanciful goings-on in Wes Anderson's breakthrough picture Rushmore—a movie Licorice Pizza resembles in its portrait of a preternaturally competent teenage boy with a yen for a much older woman. Rushmore's Max is delusional in his pursuit of his bereaved and newly widowed teacher, but Gary is not at all on the wrong track; Alana is attracted to him and not quite sure a relationship is impossible. What does happen between them has proved discomfiting for some who have seen Licorice Pizza, but it strikes me as believable—especially given the mores of 1973—in a way the entrepreneur stuff is not.
By the way, the two Andersons are not related, but they have twin-like qualities: They are almost exactly the same age, made their directorial debuts in the same year, and are probably the two most sheerly talented and original American filmmakers of their generation. And this fall, each has released one of the year's best films—first Wes, with The French Dispatch, and now Paul Thomas, with Licorice Pizza.
Published under: Movie Reviews