Paul Thomas Anderson | 2hr 13min
Even as Paul Thomas Anderson has experimented in period pieces, romantic comedies, and psychological dramas, his fascination in the surrogate families and oddball coupling of unlikely characters has barely wavered over the decades. Often these characters find themselves lost in the turmoil of unpredictable, changing worlds, from the post-war America setting of The Master to the smaller, more contained collision of chaotic plot threads in Punch Drunk Love, and Licorice Pizza is no exception. What does set this apart from anything else in his filmography is just how languid it is, almost like the happy-go-lucky first half of Boogie Nights but with no impending sense of doom, and far less cocaine.
In fact, the rate at which times passes here is entirely unclear. Gary is 15 with confidence of a 30-year-old and the heart of an 8-year-old, auditioning for children’s parts in movies while hustling a few different businesses on the side. Alana is “25”, but you could give or take a few years based on the wavering conviction with which she tells us this. They meet at Gary’s high school on picture day when she comes in to take photos, and then we never see another scene set there again, their friendship instead unfolding over what could be a few weeks, a few months, or a year on the streets of the San Fernando Valley. Neither look like the sorts of movie stars we have come to expect from even the most casual coming-of-age movies, their pimples and crooked teeth letting them blend into crowds of teenagers and young adults with similarly natural imperfections. Even in Anderson’s lesser films, he has never made one that lacks in characterisation, and here, in what may be considered one of his more modest artistic achievements, this remains the case.
How odd it is to call a film of this calibre “modest” though. Licorice Pizza may be possess less stylistic or formal ambition than Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, and yet for virtually any other working filmmaker it may as well be their crowning jewel. The Los Angeles from Anderson’s childhood is recreated in especially loving detail, calling back especially to Quentin Tarantino’s own Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with the brazen commitment to yellows all through the production design, and the attractive matching of colours between period costumes and sets.
Most impressive of all though are Anderson’s tracking shots, lingering by the sides and backs of Alana and Gary as they move through their constantly shifting environments, like a restless search for stability in a world pushing them from one capitalistic pursuit to the next. In one scene set in the 1973 Teen-Age Fair, the camera skilfully weaves through crowds of students and performers where Gary plans to sell waterbeds, though even here his venture is cut short by a hilariously unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Later when the 1973 oil crisis hits, his shrewd business instincts prove to be even more useless against the overwhelming force of economic turmoil.
Meanwhile, Alana carries a sharp insight into social situations that he does not possess, seeing the misogynistic, racist culture they live in for what it is and manipulating it to her benefit. There is little glamour to be found in this memory piece, as those unsavoury parts of eras we have left behind are recalled not with heavy didacticism nor merciful nostalgia, but rather a bitter amusement and heavy acceptance.
Yet regardless of where they are coming from or what blows they have suffered, Gary and Alana consistently find themselves running back to each other, this visual motif carrying with it a desperation to obtain the security which corporate America cannot provide. Alana’s discovery that the mayoral candidate for whom she is working is hiding a homosexual relationship from the public in fear of its impact on his popularity becomes a turning point for her, as it also comes with a realisation that very few people are suited to the mould cut out for them. Definitions around her relationship with Gary don’t come easily either, as although there is an attraction there, it manifests in complex ways. Are they friends? Business partners? Lovers? Theoretically nothing about them should work, especially given the age gap. And yet despite it all, they continue to run, driven by an instinctive need for companionship and mutual understanding that no one else can offer.
And when they are united in camaraderie, Anderson takes great pleasure in peeling back the layers of their flaws, passions, and mannerisms, building their friendship up with each new revelation. Just as Gary playfully points out that Alana often habitually repeats the statement twice in a row, so too does she slyly pick up on his unspoken fetish when he compliments a woman’s painted toenails. Later, she coyly uses that to her advantage while demonstrating how to flirt with potential customers, teasingly putting her own feet up on her desk.
The other vignettes in this seemingly endless summer (or year?) of entrepreneurship unfold with unhurried, comedic naturalism, and yet individually become the sort of memories one might recall years later as funny anecdotes – that time Gary was mistaken for a murderer and arrested, that time we flooded a movie producer’s house just because he was a d*ck, that time Alana fell off a famous film director’s motorbike. “I’m not going to forget you. Just like you’re not going to forget me,” he tells her, and though within that there is an implication that they will eventually set off on different trajectories, so too does it reserve a special place for each other in their individual futures.
But whenever that separation occurs, it isn’t going to be within this bubble of eternity that Licorice Pizza is set inside. In the final minutes as they once again run towards each other, there is the sense that this really is the last time they will ever have to do so, now that they realise where they both stand. While Anderson cuts from one to the other coming from either sides of the frame, he also inserts brief cutaways of them hurtling along sidewalks and fields from earlier scenes, as if everything up until now has built to this one climactic collision. As it is represented in this motif, the tension underlying this film is not predicated on whether they will find romantic feelings for each other – that would be to reduce their connection down to something far too conventional. As they keep on running, heading towards a common point in space, the suspense leading us on is simply the hope that they will find each other.
Licorice Pizza will be coming soon to VOD.