The title of the film and indeed my review, say it all.
LICORICE PIZZA is a strange blend. By that I mean it is bold, brilliant and cooked to perfection. And yet? It is a fusion food; or a street vendor dispensing gourmet; a Burger King washed down with Chateauneuf du Pape. I suspect you ‘get’ me on that. I use food analogy due to the movie’s title and also, its Chef: Mr Paul Thomas Anderson.
Anderson is one of the most gifted directors in the history of cinema. He is a master of all its arts: acting, photography, lighting, composition, sound, editing. The works.
His main gift is to somehow make time stand still. You do not watch his movies so much as live inside them. So in a way, an Anderson flick is every bit as valid an ‘escape’ as any popcorn fuelled super hero blockbuster. Immersive stuff.
That said? Any overdone strength is a weakness. And so it is with LICORICE PIZZA. The movie showcases every one of the Anderson talents plus a few new gems you could not have foreseen. It brings us new and vibrant acting talent.
There are moments of joy, comedy, tension, sadness, sexuality and social commentary. All wrapped in just about every facet of cinematic filter for the human condition.
But therein lies the problem. What IS this movie, really? The premise is prima facie, a coming of age story. Child actor / budding business whiz kid boy meets nice, slightly older, Jewish, Bohemian, girl. Girl turns out to be a bit wild and troubled, even? Yet she also has a commercial savvy to help motivate and inspire boy. Boy wants girl but girl is unreceptive.
Then girl gets jealous when boy looks elsewhere in reaction to said girl’s somewhat mixed signals. Amidst that? There is a historical commentary at work.
Indeed, the whole movie in places has a kind of raw, 1970s documentary BBC vibe to it. Think Mike Apted /7-Up? All well and good. Further proof of Anderson’s cinematic and historical know-how. Except it also robs the piece of pace, purpose and punch. ‘Too many notes‘, as the Emperor tells Mozart in AMADEUS.
Without a true sense of how much time passes in the film, there is little to any merit, ultimately, in its having a period setting? And if we never quite know where the characters are ‘at’ in their arc, then it becomes difficult to truly stay on their side.
Inevitably, that provokes some clock watching as the movie almost outstays its welcome. Almost. Because the question of ‘why’ keeps coming to mind. Which might be the whole point. To let us think?
Even so: what are we as an audience meant to feel? Granted, I hate didactic storytelling and moralising. But it’s still awkward not knowing which genre one is ‘in’ and where its approximate story coordinates might lie. Even art movies need focus on occasion. Licorice Pizza has little to none.
It should be a French film, perhaps? That national cinematic brand excels in the ‘nothing happens much but girls smoke, drink coffee and look sexy while shrugging shoulder and saying ‘Pour Quoi‘. But in an American idiom, with multiple tones, characters and plotlines all in competition? The whole thing feels almost too much.
That is particularly jarring when the script tries addressing genuine historical events and figures (gay rights; Vietnam; oil) only to throw it away on a comedy cameo.
No, I do not mean Sean Penn (pointless here). I refer to Bradley Cooper (brilliant but an easy role to be brilliant in). Wait for it. You will know when you see it. 😉
But hey: it’s all a master at work. And the blurred lines in genre and tone reflect real as well as reel life. Sometimes one can spend a lifetime chasing a lost summer, an unattainable girl from a one off crush /date.
That’s tragic in one sense (and there IS tragedy in the film, albeit gentle and implicit). You can live a lifetime in one summer, beautifully. I did that once. Great fun!
But equally, everyone can fall into the trap of prolonging an event, memory, affair, anything, indefinitely. A self imposed time warp prison which compromises the essence of that first kiss/date/win/success/rite of passage etc.
Just accept we can all be awkward and adolescent at times, especially when we are in fact, awkward adolescents. Then move along? Easier said than done. Hence the surreal tone to the movie. Maybe.
As in: Is it always the 1970s? A summer? A few years? Or just life, itself, on film? A minor muddle in the soundtrack medley perhaps deliberately provokes that disorientation?
And yet, conversely: that’s also life affirming, human and creative: the very virtues being lauded, onscreen. All played beautifully by Cooper Hoffman (his Dad, the late, great Philip Seymour would be so proud of his heir in talent) and by Alana Haim.
These two are stars. No question. Not in terms of perfect movie idol looks or even presence. But in sheer craft and versatility and a raw, naked, honest vulnerability.
They have to play moments of mania, hubris, vanity, loss, confusion and they do it all, flawlessly. There is no ducking the mistakes the characters make in their awkward fumbling and heart-breaking. Watch these actors with interest. Their careers will be outstanding.
And yes, I kinda fancy Alana, if that’s ok? Think Aubrey Plaza merged with Sofia Coppola and just a dash of Anjelica Huston, via Jennifer Lawrence. The girl just has ‘it’. Star quality. Magic.
In short? Stealing Beauty via Boogie Nights, plus My Summer of Love, Once upon a Time in America. A few Star Wars nods are even snuck in: yes, the credits look like a Lucasfilm tribute. Imagine all that and more and you get LICORICE PIZZA.
LICORICE PIZZA is by no means perfect. But it is yet again a reminder to go back to the cinema in ALL its forms, including the experimental and arthouse gems. This is a substantial and satisfying, if frustrating and on occasion confusing work, from a great director and a highly gifted acting team. B++. Recommended, with minor reservations.
PS: JON PETERS was not THAT mad/bad? I met the man once, if I recall. In London. Very affable. Provided you talk at his level. One street fighter to another. 😉