Director – Paul Thomas Anderson – 2021 – US – Cert. 15 – 133m
Boy meets girl in San Fernando Valley, 1973, a bizarre, meandering tale constantly firing off in new directions – out in cinemas on Saturday, January 1st
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is walking along an outdoor school corridor when he sees Alona Kane (Alona Haim), contriving to run into her. She’s much older than him (she’s actually there helping out with individual pupil photos) and pours scorn on his attempts to ask her out for a date. But he’s persistent and possessed of a way with words, talking her into turning up at the restaurant should she feel like it, which she duly does.
When he proclaims himself an actor with some films and TV series to his credit, she assumes he’s joking around, but, no, it’s true. Needing a chaperone for a new your gig he’d otherwise be unable to attend, he gives her the job. He also has his own PR company whose clients include a Japanese restaurant, has a good head for business, and is constantly chasing the latest coming trend as a means to make a fast buck.
To attempt more of a synopsis is difficult because the whole thing feels like scenes from a much longer script where lot of other scenes have been either edited out in the cutting room or possibly not even shot in the first place. That sounds like a disaster, yet Anderson (Phantom Thread, 2017; There Will Be Blood, 2007; Boogie Nights, 1997) is a director of vision who is aiming at something. Quite what that might be is hard to say, outside of an unlikely tale of first love or a bizarre romp through two young lives. Yet it proves highly enjoyable to watch.
There’s enough scripted material here to make sure you don’t get completely lost, and watching it is a genuine pleasure. At one point, Gary persuades Alona to become an actress,and after a successful audition with Jack Holden (Sean Penn) she finds herself in a bar with him and Rex Blau (Tom Waits) knocking back the booze then finding herself riding pillion on a motorbike for an improvised stunt involving fire.
At another, Gary and Alona find themselves on the wrong side of out of control, celebrity house-sitter Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper).
At a third, when Alona is working for mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Bennie Safdie), a man in a baseball jersey with a heavy looking bag (of tools? Or guns? We never find out) hangs around suspiciously outside the Wachs campaign office and a restaurant he frequents. If there’s an assassination plot not unlike the one in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) going on here, we never see it beyond these suggestive snapshots.
Yet, despite all this seemingly tangential material, the piece both flows and hangs together. The performances from not only the two leads but also the numerous supporting parts in the cast, some the briefest of appearances, some on screen much longer, are all magnetic, making this a film you don’t want to take your eyes off for one second. The title is tangential too: Licorice Pizza was apparently a record store franchise in California of which the director has fond memories. It’s never referenced in the film. In short, very odd but hugely and constantly enjoyable.
Licorice Pizza is nominated for Best Picture in the 2021/22 (94th) Oscarsas well as Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), Best Original Screenplay (Paul Thomas Anderson).
Licorice Pizza is out in cinemas in the UK on Saturday, January 1st.