Licorice Pizza

I don’t want to say I was disappointed in this movie, because I am not, but I will say that my expectations were so high that it was unlikely to be satisfied with whatever ended up being on screen, and that became my reality. The first time I saw the trailer, I was wondering if Director Paul Thomas Anderson was doing an Inception number on my head. The schools, the clothes the haircuts and the attitudes were right out of my memory. I didn’t live in the valley but at one time I had a girlfriend who did. The next girlfriend I had, (who I eventually married) did not live in the Valley, but the character of Alana reminded me so much of her at times I had to remind myself that Encino was not my stomping grounds. I was set to love this film, and I only liked it a lot.

The strengths of the movie are  largely the result of Anderson being able to evoke the period so well. The houses and production design are easy tipoffs as to the era. Gary, the male lead, is a young actor, aging out of kids parts and moving into other enterprise because he is basically a go-getter. Not yet 16, he has drive, self confidence, and just enough money from his career up to that point that he can invest in the next thing, be it arcades, waterbeds or Alana. Alana Haim, plays a twenty five year old woman who has not grown up and who has not had her ambitions in life stirred up yet. A decade older than Gary, she nonetheless becomes the object of his fixation, and frankly, he intrigues her enough despite their age difference, that she mostly ignores that decade.  The characters are the heart of the film, they complement one another very well. She grounds Gary’s ambitions and helps channel his boundless energy. She also provides an outlet for his maturity that would not be satisficed by a relationship with kids his own age.   Alana get inspired by Gary. She can see possibilities that she either ignored before or was blind to. Even though she is older, Gary offers her a maturity that she has not had in her family life or profession, such as it is.

It is the random episodic nature of the events in the film that make it feel a little pointless at times. There is never a driving force that moves the characters through their lives and ultimately toward one another as more than friends. It may be an accurate depiction of how we really develop as people, but it is nit a satisfying story telling tool. Gary goes through several business opportunities and Alana pushes him away and clings to him simultaneously. Their brushes with random celebrities are interesting but do nothing to advance the story. I have seen “boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”, so I am familiar with Anderson’s style [Boogie Nights is one of my favorite films], but there is an energy in those films that propels the characters though to the resolution. The incidents here just feel random and they never develop much momentum, only the characters do that. 

Some criticism has been made of the age difference and the notion that if the genders were reversed it would certainly be seen as inappropriate. First of all, most of the film does not involve a direct romance between the characters. They are friends but they do develop longings that would go past mere friendship. Second, it is the younger character who has a more mature attitude about life. Alana is sympathetic but she need someone to give her a push to get her life started. This is almost a gender reversal of “Manhattan” , and I know the Woody Allen reference might undermine my argument, but the film does not. The younger character can see things that the older character can’t. This is a story about how two people fill one another’s needs in ways that are not romantic, and how that ultimately leads to romance. 

Telling a story set in Southern California seems to necessitate the inclusion of show business personalities. I am not sure why we get thinly veiled characterizations of Lucille Ball and William Holden, but Jon Peters and Joel Wachs are both portrayed as themselves. The person who steals the movie entirely is Bradley Cooper, who plays the narcissistic film producer Jon Peters. The few minutes he is on screen give the movie the electricity it needed in several other spots. Cooper shows us a manic, sex addict, social climber who demands perfection from everyone except himself. Aside from the young leads, who are making starring debuts, this is the performance that the movie will be remembered for. 

“Licorice Pizza” is a film with all the components of a great movie but somehow manages to only be very good. I suspect it will grow on me as it matures in my memory and I experience it again. I can’t say that anyone praising this as the best film of the year is wrong, I can only say I don’t see ot that way at the moment.