The Auteur Theory is mostly self-aggrandizing bunk, but it exists because of directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who clearly follows nothing beyond his own artistic impulses. His films are idiosyncratic; sometimes stately, sometimes panicked. Characters live on the bleeding edge of their emotions, the claustrophobia of everyday life choking them into hysteria, or in the case of There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, into a single-minded journey toward imperial dominance. Unpredictability is Anderson’s most consistent narrative motif and contradiction the main trait in his characters. Part of the excitement of a PTA film is seeing what odd twists his stories will take. His latest film, Licorice Pizza, is his most whimsical and his most straightforward comedy, but it’s also a delightful love story.
This is Anderson’s third love story, after Punch-Drunk Love in 2002 and Phantom Thread in 2017. Those two films were about unwieldy men finding the exact right woman to deal with their Freudian neurosis (Love’s Barry is tortured by eight sisters, Thread‘s Reynolds Woodcock has morose mommy issues). Pizza takes a different approach, focusing on rambunctious young love in Nixon-era Los Angeles. Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son) plays Gary Valentine, a high school student who works as a child actor. Aging out of his bread-and-butter roles, he becomes entrepreneurial, running businesses with his dedicated but often absent mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). Flush with disposable income, he play-acts adulthood with his friends and little brother Greg (Milo Herschlag), often unsupervised in swanky restaurants and film sets. During picture day at school, he meets Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the rock band Haim), a twenty-five year-old photographer’s assistant, and his life is changed.
Gary’s pursuit of Alana over the course of Licorice Pizza is marked by jealousy, subterfuge, and several surprise guests. The script is episodic in nature, comprised of vignettes documenting the shifting power dynamic between the two of them. Gary falls for Alana the moment he sees her. All she sees is an arrogant kid, whose bravura has a seductive quality but whose reality suggests a painful transition into maturity in the future. They form a friendship, then a business partnership, frequently flirting with becoming something more, but often foiled by various factors, some unexpected, others foreseeable. Along the way, they open a waterbed company (named Fat Bernie’s), produce a commercial for a local congressman (Benny Safdie), and end up in a tenuous situation at the home of larger-than-life movie producer Jon Peters (a hilarious and ferocious Bradley Cooper).
Set to a soundtrack including Paul McCartney, Nina Simone, David Bowie, and others (a smattering of original music is by the great Jonny Greenwood), Pizza is a throwback to Anderson’s pre-There Will Be Blood days, when his films were less disciplined and more emotionally raw. Gary and Alana are both direct with their feelings, unflinching in their honesty about one another. This usually causes more friction than it does romance, and it’s fascinating to see (especially after Phantom Thread) the way Anderson views combativeness as a form of intimacy. There’s open talk about their age difference, about his immaturity versus her irritability, and while their match is an imperfect fit, that seems to make their relationship all the more inviting.
Alana’s consistent stiff-arming of Gary’s advances are mostly because of his age, but also because she’s afraid he will eventually lose interest, exposing the frivolous nature of his crush to begin with. The youngest daughter in a strict Jewish home, she’d hoped to achieve more by her mid-twenties than being friends with a high schooler (in a clever meta detail, the entire Kane family is played by Alana Haim’s actual family, including her fellow rock star sisters). To his end, Gary’s commitment to Alana is steadfast, even if he does lose patience with her flighty attitude and explosive temper. Having found success at such a young age, he is eager to share it, telling Greg early in the film that Alana is the woman he’s going to marry.
Licorice Pizza is constantly presenting moments of sweetness like this then swiftly going against it with juvenile humor and jarring plot shifts (a sudden murder arrest arrives without warning, then floats away softly as if it never happened). As always, Anderson’s characters cannot make themselves comfortable within the normal milieu of a romantic comedy, but this is by far the softest he has ever been on them. Most of the time, Anderson’s creations are undone by their peculiarities, forced into crisis both physical and existential. In Pizza, Gary and Alana’s flaws only accentuate their charm. Failures and setbacks don’t ruminate, and the film’s episodic nature helps them move on to the next task at hand. If this feels scattershot (an early buzzword in Pizza reviews), that’s because it is, but Anderson’s affection for his protagonists helps the film rise above it.
Haim, in particular, nails Anderson’s notoriously difficult tones, rocketing back and forth between dewey affection and volcanic rage. Alana is a young woman unsure of what she wants, confused by her fondness for a teenager and struggling to find her life’s path. In a defining moment, she steers an idling box truck backwards through the Hollywood hills. Pizza is more a romantic film than an erotic one, but this scene is tinged with a sexual tension unseen elsewhere, as Alana’s precision and command proves her to be the person who is literally behind the wheel of the relationship. This is not the easiest role. Alana’s motivations and attractions are a mystery to everyone but her, but in her first film, Haim proves up to the task, creating an exciting Alana to foil the braggadocious Gary.
It’s been well documented on this site that Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite director. It was his earlier films, particularly Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, that hooked me. They seemed to represent my own tempest of adolescent emotion (the roiling hormones of a teenager!). His evolution into a master (no pun intended) filmmaker and crafter of epic tales of culture-enforced isolation has pushed him into legendary status. But I will always have a softer spot in my heart for those early films. Licorice Pizza hints that Anderson still has a soft spot for them too, which is probably what I most appreciated. His unabashed love for his San Fernando Valley home trickles throughout Gary and Alana’s love story. Unseen in PTA’s work since Punch-Drunk Love, the Valley plays itself wonderfully here, as the sugar-flavored purgatory just outside the glam of Hollywood.
I don’t claim to be an objective viewer of Anderson’s movies. I’ve also never really been sure about how I felt about them until I’ve watched for a second time. That being said, Licorice Pizza is a tremendous achievement, both a harbinger of nostalgia and a shield against sentimentality. A testament to young love and an appreciation for whatever place you may call home. I’m glad that Anderson has found his way toward an emotionally harmonious place without sacrificing his edge.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson