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For all the delightful surprises packed into Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film — starting with its title, “Licorice Pizza” — it may not shock you to learn that it opens with a hell of a pick-up scene. They’re something of an Anderson specialty.
How this filmmaker loves his hard-sell hustlers and go-for-broke dreamers, and what delicious words he gives them as they chase their desires: love and sex, sure, but also money, power, greatness. Think of the fashion designer flirting with a waitress in “Phantom Thread,” but also the oil baron greasing his way into a town’s good graces in “There Will Be Blood.” Think of the cult leader reaching out to a lost soul in “The Master,” dangling the possibility of salvation with an unmistakable hint of seduction.
That leader was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which imparts a certain eerie exhilaration to the opening scenes of “Licorice Pizza.” The pick-up artist here — played by Cooper Hoffman, the late actor’s son — is a 15-year-old go-getter with the showbiz-ready name of Gary Valentine. It’s picture day at a Tarzana high school in the mid-1970s, and Gary, ready to commit his wavy red hair and pimply smile to yearbook posterity, finds himself smitten with a photographer’s assistant named Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Unfazed by her age (she’s 25) or her disdain, he wears her down with nonstop chatter about his acting career, the PR company he runs with his mom and his insistence on taking Alana out to dinner. She doesn’t say yes, but as she turns away a smile of surrender steals across her face.
By that point she’s earned your surrender as well. Gary Valentine may be persistent, but Alana — and here I mean the actor and the character interchangeably — mounts a subtler charm offensive. Dark-haired and gimlet-eyed, with a natural warmth and wit that can quickly flare into indignation, she’s the star of this boisterous, bighearted movie and its raison d’être. “Valentine,” not coincidentally, is the title of one of several short films and music videos Anderson directed featuring the rock trio Haim, a.k.a. Alana and her older sisters, Este and Danielle. A valentine is also an apt description of what this movie is, namely the most ardent love letter from a filmmaker to an actor in recent memory.
But “Licorice Pizza” is also more than that: a quasi-romantic comedy and a shaggy-dog epic, a rise-and-fall portrait of a waterbed empire, a string of Hollywood tall tales, a peek inside the chambers of political power and — not to be redundant — a roundelay of men behaving badly. Anderson, cinematic-historical magpie that he is, draws inspiration from all directions: Much of the plot was drawn from anecdotes told by his friend Gary Goetzman, an actor, prolific producer and loose stand-in for Gary Valentine. Some of it was inspired by classics like “American Graffiti,” with its burger-joints-and-cherry-bombs vision of California youth, or plucked from real-life events, like the ’70s gas shortages that caused car lines to stretch on for blocks.
But much of “Licorice Pizza” also seems to have been devised by Anderson and his actors, who include not only Alana Haim but also the other members of their working-class Jewish family. (Her father, Moti Haim, is a particular tough-loving hoot.) With its funny, sometimes farcical developments and infectious little-help-from-my-friends vibe, this is easily (if deceptively) the most laid-back picture Anderson’s ever made in his San Fernando Valley backyard. The steady glide of the camera sets a lazy, meandering rhythm, but with a few exceptions — some strenuous comic nonsense involving a restaurateur (John Michael Higgins) and his revolving door of Japanese wives (Yumi Mizui, Megumi Anjo) — nary a moment feels wasted.
While the specters of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby hover, not for the first time, over Anderson’s work, “Licorice Pizza” is neither as virtuosic an ensemble piece as “Magnolia” nor as whiplash-inducing an oddball coupling as “Punch-Drunk Love.” And while it may unfold in the vicinity of the ’70s porn empire from “Boogie Nights,” it pulls back the curtain on a far tamer, not necessarily kinder corner of the entertainment industry. Curiously enough, the Anderson film it may most resemble, more in theme than in ambience, is “Phantom Thread,” another story of a woman negotiating her emotional and professional place within the life of an easily distracted male partner. (The two movies share some of Anderson’s expert regular collaborators, including the composer Jonny Greenwood and the costume designer Mark Bridges.)
For Alana and Gary, that negotiation takes many forms. It begins with Alana chaperoning Gary on a trip to New York for a live cast reunion for his movie “Under One Roof” (a riff on one of Goetzman’s early screen credits, the 1968 Lucille Ball comedy “Yours, Mine and Ours”), the first and last film of his short-lived acting career.
Back in L.A., a starstruck Alana briefly dates another actor (Skyler Gisondo), only to find herself pulled back into Gary’s orbit when he launches his new waterbed business. Over the rest of the film these two will remain in furious motion, forever colliding and separating, as if they were trapped in one of the pinball machines that will become Gary’s next project. (No wonder they’re almost always running toward each other when they reunite.)
One of the animating tensions of “Licorice Pizza” is that there’s so much swirling around Alana and Gary — so much color and chaos, so much great music and flowery wallpaper — that it can almost distract from how much is also happening between them. Alana is impressed by Gary’s entrepreneurial smarts, but also frustrated by his immaturity and self-absorption — and by her own inability to tear herself away. Gary, for his part, can’t help but see her through a 15-year-old boy’s haze of jealousy and insecurity (“I’m cooler than you,” he seethes at one point).
There’s a touch of Peter Pan and Wendy to their dynamic (Gary’s younger brother and teenage friends make a fine gaggle of lost boys), and their relationship stays platonic even as they hawk a line of products that serve, in their own way, to commodify desire. (It’s worth noting that while waterbeds often pop up in movies as period markers or slasher-thriller props, perhaps only a first-class termite artist like Anderson could make them compelling as a business venture.)
But then, everyone’s selling something in “Licorice Pizza”: publicity, sushi, menswear, political candidates. (That’s Benny Safdie as the young Joel Wachs, here launching the first of his three runs for mayor of Los Angeles.) You may forget some characters’ names, but the names of real-life businesses will stick in your head like commercial jingles: Tiny Toes, Fat Bernie’s and Tail o’ the Cock, the steak-and-margarita joint that is one of the movie’s key hangouts. It’s where Alana first says “You’re sweet, Gary,” a line Haim delivers with a lovely little quaver, as if a mask were falling away. It’s also where Alana will ill-advisedly have a drink with an actor affectionately modeled on William Holden (a richly nuanced, gravel-voiced Sean Penn) and meet another Old Hollywood throwback whose identity I won’t spoil.
Funnily enough, one now-defunct retail haven we don’t visit is Licorice Pizza, a chain of record stores that proliferated across Southern California in the ’70s. Some of its wares pop up on the movie’s teeming soundtrack — Nina Simone, Sonny & Cher, Paul McCartney, Gordon Lightfoot and many others — but the title itself is pointedly never mentioned. Its very absence evokes a sense of loss, a fondness for bygone days of vinyl sifting and cassette shuffling — and, this being Anderson, of going to the movies, where countless stories, real, fictional or somewhere in between, are waiting to be excavated and unspooled. (Speaking of which, Anderson and Michael Bauman shot the picture on exquisitely grainy 35-millimeter film; it begins a 70-millimeter L.A. theatrical run Nov. 26 at the Regency Village in Westwood.)
Some of those stories are told here, few of them more arresting than the one starring a hilarious, unnerving Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, the prolific producer and serial womanizer (and frequent sexual-harassment defendant) whose early career as a hairdresser was one of the inspirations for Ashby’s great 1975 comedy, “Shampoo.” Peters is rushing out to a date with Barbra Streisand when Gary and his crew show up late with a waterbed delivery, which is bad news for them but good news for us: Cooper, his chest hair peeking out of a billowy white cotton shirt, looks like a Jesus of sleaze, and he plays Peters with a cocktail of rage and testosterone that steers “Licorice Pizza” toward a riotous high point.
There’s a lot of affection in these alt-Hollywood vignettes. There’s also a coil of menace, an awareness of how pleasure and danger commingle in an industry where Gary and Alana are asymmetrically positioned: He may be savvier, but she turns more heads. After a meeting with the famous child-talent agent Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris), who notes Alana’s “very Jewish nose” and urges her to consider doing nudity, it doesn’t take long for their Hollywood dreams to curdle. Their youthful disillusionment seems to reflect Anderson’s own industry ambivalence, and the long, loving closeups he lavishes on Hoffman and Haim, their blemished faces scrubbed of makeup and devoid of glamour, feel like both a pointed corrective to the status quo and a pure expression of love.
To that end, Anderson is too honest to grant us a doubt-free happily ever after; as his stories have consistently shown, he has nearly as many doubts about heterosexual romance as he does about Hollywood. But this is an artist for whom skepticism has never stood in the way of passion, and for whom the past is more than just an excuse for a nostalgia trip. With “Licorice Pizza” he has sifted through a haze of wildly embellished tales and half-forgotten memories — and pieced together something that feels more concrete, more achingly, tangibly real, than just about any American movie this year.
Rating: R, for language, sexual material and some drug use
When: Opens Saturday
Where: Wide release
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes