Thursday, February 10, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Licorice Pizza (2021)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at!  Hey look, it's a 2021 Best Picture nominee!

Yes, now that it's officially joined the ranks of the Academy's illustrious Best Picture candidates, I can write in this "journal" about Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus, Licorice Pizza!  Based loosely on the adolescent misadventures of his friend Gary Goetzman (noted Hollywood producer and former child actor), Licorice Pizza is set in 1973 and mostly centers around a budding romantic relationship between 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman in an auspicious debut that does his father Philip Seymour proud) and 25-year-old photographer's assistant Alana Kane (folk-rock musician Alana Haim, also making her motion picture debut with a bang).  The pair have an odd sort of anti-meet-cute, during which Alana makes it clear she has no interest whatsoever in the precocious, cocksure Gary.  But when he asks her to meet him that evening for dinner, she does so anyway.  From there they become almost inseparable, Gary clearly harboring real romantic feelings toward Alana, while Alana isn't really sure how she feels about him.  They become business associates when Gary starts up a waterbed store, but during the gas crisis of '73 it becomes untenable due to supply chain issues.  Alana then decides to break into acting and later local politics, while Gary goes into the pinball machine business.  

But all of these plot points are more or less incidental.  Just as PTA's 1997 masterpiece Boogie Nights wasn't so much about the adult film industry as it was about a gang of misfits looking for love and happiness, Licorice Pizza is less about Nixon-era LA and more about two oddball young people trying to find their respective places in the world while consistently and inexplicably gravitating toward each other.  It's almost a bell-bottom-clad When Harry Met Sally, but with a far more bizarre supporting cast.  
Set against 1970s Los Angeles, there's no shortage of strange and colorful characters and scenarios for the main characters to play against.  Alana's family alone is a quirky bunch, played by Haim's real-life family members as the three headstrong daughters rebel against the strictly orthodox parents (One of the film's funnier scenes involves Alana bringing home one of Gary's fellow actors for dinner).  But the supporting performances from known actors nearly steal the show at different points.  Sean Penn plays a decadent older actor for whom Alana auditions before agreeing to a night out for drinks and motorcycle stunts.  Tom Waits plays a film director friend of Penn's who's nothing but a bad influence, devilishly chomping on his cigarette holder as he goads Penn to get on the bike.  Benny Safdie is a slick California politician who may be less wholesome than his public image would suggest, himself extending sudden after-hours invitations to Alana.  And finally Bradley Cooper chews the scenery in an absolutely hilarious turn as an over-the-top, coked-up version of real-life producer John Peters.

But the heart and soul of the film is in the performances of its two leads.  Cooper blends a beyond-his-years self-assuredness with a 15-year-old's quixotic insecurity, while Haim is outwardly acerbic but masks tenderness and emotional fragility.  It's the classic trope of the couple that doesn't want to admit to themselves or each other how much they need to be together.  For all their bickering, passive aggressive jabs and hemming and hawing these two make a surprisingly sweet pair.  

With Licorice Pizza, PTA adds to his eclectic filmography a lighthearted comedy-drama that often teases going to darker places but keeps his two protagonists shy of true danger; they may find enough of that in letting their guard down for one another.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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