If anybody could make a movie that is essentially a 2-hour gaze into a lava lamp, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson. Patient, diligent deep dives into highly specific times and places are a specialty of his. From “Boogie Nights” to “Magnolia to “There Will Be Blood” to “The Master,” Anderson’s films are iconic, immersive events that draw a lot of critical attention and consistently attract A-list acting talent. Anderson is only 51, but he’s been in the directing game since he was 26, so the depth and wisdom of his work comes from experience built over decades in the hotseat. And he misses almost never.
“Licorice Pizza,” out now in theaters, is the story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine, two young Californians who must steer their budding romance through a turbulent 1970s America. As nostalgia-soaked visual love notes go, “Licorice Pizza” is a treat for anyone who remembers that colorful bygone decade.
The title of the film, slang for a vinyl record, comes from a music store chain Anderson remembers from his childhood in the San Fernando Valley. It’s never referenced directly in the film but, according to Anderson, that doesn’t matter. “It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film,” he said in a Newsweek article, which continues with, “it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood.”
He’s right, and that mood is the real star of the story. The clothes, the cars, the haircuts, the star-studded and hilariously campy supporting cast. Everything is charged with memory and affection. Even the suburban sprawl of the buildings feels fresh somehow, like something hopeful and ambitious. Not depressing and hollow, like how that kind of architectural laziness often feels today. It is into this rich, expectant atmosphere that Anderson places his two lead characters, both of whom are portrayed by actors making their feature film debuts as headliners.
Here’s where the problems with “Licorice Pizza,” some slight and one huge, enter in. Gary, played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper, is a 15-year-old hustler who moves from one scheme to another without looking back. Whether it’s waterbeds, arcades or some other doomed endeavor with a hard sell-by date, Gary is a smooth and unbothered businessman, as cool as a man three times his age, at least some of the time.
His infatuation with the 25-year-old Alana, played superbly by indie musician Alana Haim, is completely understandable, but her fitful reciprocation of it is not. Not only is it preposterous to imagine her in love with a high school kid, her story, frankly, is simply more compelling than Gary’s on almost every level. Don’t get me wrong–he’s fascinating–but I had a hard time reconciling the relative maturity of her resistance to his reverse-Peter-Pan world with the baffling third act concessions Anderson has her make.
Age-gap romances are hard to pull off, I get it, especially with the kind of math “Licorice Pizza” is toying with. I just thought Alana deserved a more believable arc, and a much better last two minutes. The final scene is such a big disappointment. It’s not bad enough to skip the entire movie, but you will wonder if it’s possible to take Anderson’s incredibly addictive time machine back to the beginning and let him try again to stick the landing. If nothing else, it would be fun to live in his imagination a while longer.
As a study in the ephemerality of fads and the comedy potential of adorable, enterprising scamps, “Licorice Pizza” is note-perfect. It does not, however, work very well as a love story. Not unless it’s California itself you yearn for, and the sweet sweet styles of 1973. You’ll feel that at first sight.