Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (2021)

For a myriad number of reasons, nostalgia has come to play an increasingly large role in the ever-homogenizing landscape of American entertainment. The pleasures of nostalgia are apparent enough; they can be a comfort or distraction from an uncertain present, reminding audiences of simpler times or the glory days of their youth. For those disinclined towards change, nostalgia can be a way to navigate and/or conveniently ignore complicated sociopolitical movements. For filmed entertainment in particular, the deployment of nostalgia as a storytelling device can be for reasons as simple as avoiding the pitfalls of logical plotting when the mere presence of cell phones can resolve a potential conflict without any drama. From MAD MEN to STRANGER THINGS to THE MARVELOUS MISS MAISEL, nostalgia is everywhere.

The current crop of mainstream filmmakers have used this same force as a prism through which to depict their own backgrounds on film. Alfonso Cuaron would painstakingly recreate the Mexico City of the 1970s for his 2018 film, ROMA, while Quentin Tarantino would resurrect the technicolor glory of 1960’s Los Angeles for ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD (2019). Even Steven Spielberg is getting in on the act, due to release a picture called THE FABELMANS in 2022 that purports to tell the story of his childhood growing up in Arizona in the post-war years. Director Paul Thomas Anderson has trafficked in this arena once before, with his 1997 film BOOGIE NIGHTS painting a sprawling portrait of his beloved San Fernando Valley as the 1970’s gave way to the 80’s. While the majority of his features to follow would also be period pieces, BOOGIE NIGHTS remains distinct for its wistful and romantic longing for a bygone era. 

Anderson’s ninth feature, released in 2021 and titled LICORICE PIZZA, returns to this well for an even heavier dose of nostalgia. While BOOGIE NIGHTS was rooted in a decidedly-adult perspective that he otherwise wouldn’t have had as a young boy in the 70’s — if it weren’t for his father and friends’ colorful stories, that is — LICORICE PIZZA is directly informed by the world as a teenage Anderson saw it. True to form, Anderson’s unexpected storytelling defies convention at every turn, using his childhood as only a minor aspect of the overall story. Initially inspired by a fleeting episode that occurred two decades ago, wherein Anderson recounts walking by a Valley-area high school and witnessing a male student awkwardly attempting to hit on an older female photographer (1), LICORICE PIZZA actually models more of itself around the adolescence of one Gary Goetzman. Known today as a successful film producer and the co-founder of Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, the teenage Goetzman was on the downslope of his career as a child actor and subsequently spreading his short attention span across quick-cash endeavors like waterbed companies and pinball arcades (2). The composite result of these various influences asserts itself as Anderson’s most personal project yet, with Anderson obviously seeing several parallels between Goetzman and his own younger, ambitious & impossibly-precocious self. Far from content to simply revel in nostalgia’s warm glow, however, Anderson uses LICORICE PIZZA to present a nuanced perspective on its universal appeal: that the supposedly-simpler times we tend to remember so fondly weren’t so simple at all, possessing fundamental flaws made imperceptible by our youthful naïveté.

Anderson focuses this sprawling sentiment through the lens of first love and its formative nature, pulling inspiration from the aforementioned high school flirting episode and his own childhood crushes on older women, while also drawing from the influence of teen classics like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and AMERICAN GRAFFITI (3). Filmed during the height of the coronavirus pandemic under the working title SOGGY BOTTOM (so named after the waterbed company run by the film’s teenage protagonist), LICORICE PIZZA derives its sweet-and-savory moniker from a local chain of vinyl record stores that populated the Valley in the 1970’s. Beyond its AM-radio soundtrack, however, the film has nothing to do with records or record shops; indeed, Anderson would reportedly choose the unusual title because of the “Pavlovian” effect it held over him, with the mere utterance of the phrase instantly transporting him back to the specific mood of his teenage years as he lived them (3)(4). Odd as the title may be, the ease with which it allows Anderson to slip back into time commands a similar effect on his audience, immersing us in this highly specific era while telling a timeless story.

Set in the quintessential Valley hamlet of Encino in the year 1973, LICORICE PIZZA details the lopsided (and legitimately-iffy) love story of a young man falling in love with an older woman. An age gap of ten years separates them, but the devil is in the details— the man is not so much a man at all; he’s a fifteen year old boy, and the apple of his eye is well into her twenties. The subject of endless consternation and condemnation on Film Twitter, the relationship dynamic that results generally avoids its statutory implications to depict an increasingly-earnest kind of puppy love. Having worked with Alana Haim and her sisters on a series of music videos for their eponymous rock band, Anderson would craft the central character of the same name with her in mind (5). Risky as it might be to anchor a major motion picture around an untested, untrained talent with virtually zero acting experience, Anderson’s choice pays off brilliantly. Alana delivers one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory, incinerating the screen with a confrontational and fiery dynamic. Her endlessly watchable performance allows for plenty of conflicted nuance; she’s entirely self-aware that her feelings aren’t exactly appropriate, so she expends lots of energy trying to deny them and throwing up walls of defiance. Anderson pulls off this tricky balancing act by emphasizing her general aimlessness; a worker of odd jobs like the school photography gig that kicks off the story, Alana’s lack of thought towards her future suggests that she’s still very much a child herself… not yet ready to join the adult world and its attendant miseries.

Alana’s co-star, Cooper Hoffman, proves equally as magnetic in his own film debut. The son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Cooper had already been a longtime family friend of Anderson’s— a nephew, even. This adds an additional layer of poignancy to the whole enterprise; after the elder Hoffman’s untimely passing in 2013, it’s heartening to see his essence reappear in Anderson’s work in the guise of his son. Though obviously not as refined a performer as his father, Cooper displays a natural talent as well as an ability to channel some of his dad’s distinct physical mannerisms. Anderson’s confidence in Cooper’s capabilities stems not just from the formative collaborations he enjoyed with Phillip, but also from a surprising, little-known source: a series of home movies that the celebrated director has made throughout the years with Cooper and his own kids— an unbearably sweet recreational activity that nonetheless teases at a whole universe of Anderson films we’ll never know about or see. Cooper’s character in LICORICE PIZZA is Gary Valentine, a high school sophomore still carrying around a few pounds of baby fat. He’s somehow oblivious to his inherent awkwardness, presenting himself as a confident (some might say conceited) child actor and serial entrepreneur hopping from one hare-brained business scheme to the next. He initially pursues Alana with the same erratic passion, instead finding a different sort of intimacy with her as a business partner when a romantic relationship initially proves unlikely. With the character of Gary, Anderson deliberately evokes that particular cultural phenomenon of teenage boys lusting after older women—- all to subvert our expectations about where this is all headed. In the end, it’s not about lust at all, but rather the formative connections that first teach us to care about someone other than ourselves.

Though Anderson’s primary interests lie in the crafting of this idiosyncratic, chronologically-lopsided romance, he nonetheless cultivates a supporting ensemble that recalls the sprawling universe of characters that define his early work. Running the gamut from Oscar-winning performers to complete unknowns and non-actors, LICORICE PIZZA’s cast provides no shortage of colorful characters. Among the most recognizable faces are Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper, the former doing a fictional riff on William Holden as an old-school movie star and motorcycle daredevil with a bit of a predatory streak, while the latter reconfigures the real-life producer Jon Peters into an unhinged, chaotic force animated by a ferociously aggressive and uncontrollable libido. Renowned character crooner Tom Waits plays Rex Blau, a cantankerous, chain-smoking director influenced by Sam Peckinpah and John Huston. Benny Safdie, one half of the Safdie Brothers directing duo responsible for the A24 hits GOOD TIME and UNCUT GEMS, embodies the real life character of Joel Wachs, albeit recontextualized here as a closeted politician struggling with his relationship’s incompatibility to his mayoral aspirations. He shares an unlikely connection with Alana; though they never acknowledge it directly, their bond is forged by the inner conflict they feel after indulging in romances that run counter to society’s acceptance.

LICORICE PIZZA’s unknown talents drive a great deal of its charm, positioning it as something of a family affair. For starters, Anderson casts Haim’s real-life family to play the same roles to her character in the film. That means notable supporting turns for Alana’s sisters and band mates Danielle and Este, who work together to create a stressful home dynamic for Alana that recalls the incessant, sometimes-affectionate snark dealt out by Barry Egan’s seven sisters from PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. It also means notable appearances from real-life parents Modi and Donna Haim, the latter of whom was Anderson’s one-time art teacher and, as one source would put it, the subject of a childhood crush that informs LICORICE PIZZA’s story (1). Anderson’s wife, Maya Rudolph, makes a brief appearance as an assistant at a casting office where Gary regularly auditions, while their own children pop up in a sequence set at the Tail O’ The Cock restaurant— a long-gone Valley institution that was lovingly resurrected as a set for the film. Harriet Sansom Harris, who made so memorable an impression as a messy aging socialite in PHANTOM THREAD, turns another bit appearance into a delicious display of scene-chewing; here, she appears as a chain-smoking, small-time talent agent, embodying the Valley’s particular brand of entertainment industry sleaze. Anderson includes yet even more extended family friends, like Steven Spielberg’s daughter Sasha as Alana’s photography colleague and Leonardo DiCaprio’s real-life father as a grooved-out waterbed salesman. For viewers who’ve been following Anderson’s work since the beginning, the fleeting, edge-of-the-frame appearance by John C. Reilly is a welcome surprise. A onetime frequent collaborator absent from Anderson’s viewfinder since MAGNOLIA, Reilly’s cameo as Herman Munster — complete in full Frankenstein drag — would be unrecognizable if not for his unique tenor. His presence lasts a mere handful of seconds… the length of time it takes Anderson’s camera to glide a couple yards. And yet, Reilly’s inclusion injects a dose of metatextual nostalgia for Anderson’s early work, inducing a pleasurable response via the warmth of an old familiar face.

Since the beginning, Anderson has been a singular filmmaking voice, always directing from his own script. LICORICE PIZZA is no different, further consolidating the expression of his distinct worldview by serving as his own cinematographer. In a way, PHANTOM THREAD was the pilot program for this development— after a long and fruitful series of collaborations with cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson would effectively make the position redundant, collapsing the cameraman’s responsibilities into his own. This isn’t to suggest a cinematographer’s contributions aren’t vital; indeed, it’s very much the opposite. Anderson gets away with it because he is a consummate filmmaker in every sense of the word, gifted with a superlative technical expertise that empowers his strengths as a storyteller. Even then, he has the sense to know what he doesn’t know, pivoting towards a closer collaboration with his gaffer in a capacity tailored more towards his needs. In this context, Michael Bauman’s credits as Anderson’s “Chief Lighting Technician” and “Lighting Cameraman” as far back as THE MASTER become clearer. When it comes to PHANTOM THREAD’s romantic and sophisticated elegance, Bauman’s seasoned skillset is arguably just as responsible as his director’s. It only makes sense, then, that this unique arrangement would result in Bauman sharing a full Director of Photography credit on LICORICE PIZZA… even if the pair only take the credit in the first place because of union regulations.

The resulting product is a work of sublime, sunsoaked beauty— and, given that no digital intermediate was ever created, a testament to the chaotic charms of old-fashioned photochemical color-timing. Returning to the 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio for the first time since THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Anderson and Bauman expose the 35mm film frame in the incandescent glow of SoCal’s late afternoon sun. Ample lens flares punctuate a sophisticated color palette defined by bright primaries, rosy highlights, and bluish shadows. Befitting its shared setting and time period, LICORICE PIZZA’s cinematography is a close cousin to BOOGIE NIGHTS— their many similarities nevertheless demonstrating how much Anderson’s artistry has grown and matured in the intervening years. Both are marked by a restless, curious camera that constantly tracks around, ahead of, and after its subjects, as if animated by the twin spirits of Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese. LICORICE PIZZA even includes imagery of homegrown filmmaking within the context of its story, with a 16mm campaign ad for Joel Wachs drawing a clear parallel to the kitschy, lo-fi love letter that Amber Waves fashions for Dirk Diggler in BOOGIE NIGHTS. The usage of vintage lenses (6) cements our visual sense of period with soft lines and a gauzy, dreamlike bokeh. 

Two key collaborators from Anderson’s suite of music videos for Haim — production designer Florencia Martin and editor Andy Jurgensen — carry over into the same capacities here, with the latter crafting an edit that alternates between punchy quick cuts intended to mirror the upbeat, ceaseless energies of our young protagonist and an unhurried, languorous pace that lets us marinate in the fine details of the former’s immersive period recreation. Regular composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame contributes a spare score that’s reminiscent of Jon Brion’s work from Anderson’s early films, marked by a sweet and subdued theme that evokes the simplicity of adolescence in its arrangement of various string instruments. Like BOOGIE NIGHTS before it, the original score takes a backseat to a rambling musical landscape of needledrops from the period. David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” serves as a kind of anthem, featured prominently in both the feature and accompanying promotional material to give Anderson’s little love story the sweep of an epic, while The Doors’ “Peace Frog” propels us through an ambitious montage that reflects the idea of the 1970’s as a kind of transitory era between the psychedelic, immaterial values of the 60’s and the coke-fueled commerce of the Reagan years. Indeed, LICORICE PIZZA digs even deeper into time for tracks that could be considered “oldies” even by 1973 standards, featuring an eclectic jukebox of recordings from Nina Simone, Chuck Berry and Big Crosby, among others. Like Quentin Tarantino would do in his own sun-kissed ode to a bygone LA, 2019’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD, Anderson weaves his disparate music selections together using AM radio dispatches from the era, effectively crafting an invisible, omnipresent web of sound that ensnares millions of unwitting Angelenos into a shared cultural existence.

After PHANTOM THREAD’s brief detour across the Atlantic, LICORICE PIZZA resumes Anderson’s careerlong portrait of California in the twentieth century— an unspoken, but overarching narrative that ties together the otherwise-disparate storylines of his films. While his characters and plot lines don’t intersect and cross-over like Tarantino’s or Kevin Smith’s, Anderson’s works nevertheless interact with each other by suggesting a richer subtext. BOOGIE NIGHTS is obviously the closest kin to LICORICE PIZZA, the former’s preoccupation with the sea change wrought on the porn industry by the rise of video finding an echo in the letter’s structuring around less-earthshaking developments like the invention of the waterbed and the legalization of pinball. THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s portrait of the oil industry’s transformative effect on California’s economic and cultural landscape reverberates through the decades, resulting in LICORICE PIZZA’s apocalyptic depictions of the 70’s oil crisis, complete with gas station lines stretching for blocks and providing the setup for a breathless setpiece that finds Alana threading a massive moving truck through a downhill slalom of canyon neighborhood streets. 

Though Anderson goes to great lengths to resurrect long-gone restaurants and hangouts in exacting detail, his cinematic return to the Encino and Sherman Oaks areas that shaped him is not an exercise in mere nostalgia. His rose-tinted glasses don’t occlude the sharpness of his vision; he’s here with clear intent. LICORICE PIZZA is an opportunity for a world-renowned filmmaker to reconnect with the formative essence of his artistry, and to get back in touch with his inner child— immature and conceited though that child may be. The undercurrents of artful cynicism and self-delighted perversity that have come to define Anderson’s voice serve to also mark the contours of Cooper’s and Alana’s relationship. Despite their difference in physical age, they’re well matched in emotional maturity, and their connection is rooted in a fundamental, childlike innocence; though adults are very much present throughout, they are peripheral characters who are powerless to stop Cooper and his acne-ridden minions from running rampant and unsupervised through the Valley’s endless grid of hot asphalt, seedy strip malls and single-story ranch homes. Even for Alana, technically an adult at 25, the intoxicating, exhilarating world of capital-A Adults is just beyond reach; she still lives in her childhood home with her parents and sisters, and her ambivalence about joining the workforce causes her to gravitate towards summer jobs meant for teenagers instead of a specialized career. If we couldn’t pick it up from these context clues, we surely could from their erratic displays of stunted maturity: Alana won’t allow herself to grow up, while Cooper is in quite the hurry to join adulthood. To borrow a saccharine sentiment from another story about a chronologically-imbalanced love story, they’re “just the right age for meeting in the middle”. 

Cooper’s attraction may very well be an Andersonian embodiment of the ultimate juvenile male fantasy: that of hooking up with an older woman as a misguided means of self-validation and confirmation of “manhood”, while Alana’s own (reluctant) interest isn’t quite the predatory angle that critics make it out to be— she doesn’t have any power to lord over him, and she doesn’t necessarily want anything from him because she can barely admit she even wants him in the first place. This unstable chemistry makes LICORICE PIZZA’s ending all the more discordant… at least, at first glance. After two hours of Alana hissing at Coopers’ amorous overtures, Anderson closes on a note of earnest sweetness: she runs away into the night with him, hand in hand, breathlessly whispering the truth that she’s worked this entire time to deny: “I love you, Gary”. An admission that the sweetness of love can soften even the hardest of hearts, the expression of this sentiment is maybe the boldest move in a film comprised almost entirely of them— simultaneously reinforcing and blowing up everything that came before.

Though Anderson was no doubt braced for the lighting rod of criticism he’d endure over the inappropriate age gap at the center of its nostalgic romance, he very well may have been caught off guard by just how widely LICORICE PIZZA was embraced by industry colleagues and fervent fans who branded it as an instant Andersonian classic. Positive reviews poured in from across the spectrum of media outlets, buoyed by critics who appreciated his idiosyncratic mix of refined artistic sensibilities and sex-obsessed juvenality. Its theatrical run, timed for the holidays and maximum awards season attention, would culminate in a modest $33 million worldwide box office haul and three Oscar nominations for Anderson’s writing & direction, as well as a Best Picture nod shared with his co-producer, Adam Somner. The lingering controversy over the problematic age gap — further complicated by the satirical (but easily misinterpreted) inclusion of a minor character who speaks to his series of Japanese wives in a blatantly-racist accent — may very well complicate its reputation among general audiences for years to come, but LICORICE PIZZA promises to age like an old, beloved record: full of analog warmth and crackling imperfection, the tactility of its grooves mapping the contours of a lustrous past suffused with blissful heartache.

LICORICE PIZZA is currently available on high-definition Blu Ray via Universal Home Entertainment

Credits:

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Adam Somner

Executive Producers: Sara Murphy, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar

Director of Photography: Paul Thomas Anderson & Michael Bauman

Production Designer: Florencia Martin

Edited by: Andy Jurgensen

Music by: Jonny Greenwood

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Mankiewicz, Ben (November 6, 2021). “Licorice Pizza Panel/w Paul Thomas Anderson and Alana Haim” (Interview). Event occurs at 2:00–4:00, 17:00–18:00, 32:00–33:00. Archived from the original on November 7, 2021. Retrieved November 7, 2021 – via YouTube.
  3. Lang, Brent (November 10, 2021). “Paul Thomas Anderson on ‘Licorice Pizza’ and Moviemaking: ‘Anyone Who’s Done This Knows Confidence Is an Illusion”. Variety. Archived from the original on November 27, 2021. Retrieved November 10, 2021.
  4. Whipp, Glenn (November 26, 2021). “Paul Thomas Anderson’s hilarious and intimate ‘Licorice Pizza’ tour of the Valley”. Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on December 6, 2021. Retrieved December 11, 2021.
  5. Verhoeven, Beatrice (December 6, 2021). “‘Licorice Pizza’ Star Alana Haim Calls Paul Thomas Anderson Her Biggest Supporter”. The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on December 9, 2021. Retrieved December 11, 2021.
  6. Topel, Fred (November 14, 2021). “‘Licorice Pizza’ Used ’70s Film Tech to Tell A ’70s Love Story – Contenders L.A.”Deadline Hollywood. Archived from the original on December 5, 2021. Retrieved December 11, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s