His first feature since 2017’s Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the director’s chair with Licorice Pizza. His latest is a joyous, hazy and nostalgia-inflected romantic drama set in California’s San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, featuring knockout debut performances from Alana Haim (youngest sibling of the band Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).
On the surface, Licorice Pizza is about as far removed from his last film as it’s possible to get. Whereas Phantom Thread was a meticulously-staged psychological drama, its visual language as sumptuous and highly-strung as its couture, Licorice Pizza is a hazy, meandering and extremely funny trip down memory lane, told from half-strung memories and romantic embellishments. While its narrative and romantic tone are in some ways a companion piece to Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, the vaguely hallucinogenic, elliptical storytelling is more reminiscent of the shaggy-dog neo-noir of his Inherent Vice, while the wistful nostalgia feels more in keeping with Richard Linklater’s filmography.
Indeed, what might have registered as a collection of half-finished anecdotes never feels less than coherent, each revealing new dimensions to Gary, Alana and their complicated relationship. Meanwhile, near-endless celebrity cameos, featuring among others Maya Rudolph as a casting agent, a Munsterous John C. Reilly, the Haim sisters (essentially playing themselves) and Tom Waits (also essentially playing himself), that might otherwise been grating or smug instead imbue the period setting with an even greater sense of nostalgia. Anderson’s favoured technique of lighting his subjects from behind is as effective as ever here, casting his characters into sharp silhouette in front of intoxicating hazes of light and colour, while the grain of his 35mm film is viscerally tactile yet distant, like a dream that lingers on waking.
Based on the recollections of his friend Gary Coetze, who like his cinematic alter-ego was a child actor and entrepreneur, the film is centred around a love story between the 15-year-old Gary (Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana (Haim). Meeting when she works a job at Gary’s high school, Alana is set upon by the precocious teen, whose effortless charm chips away at her detached resolve to ignore him, though she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that she is uninterested in him romantically. It really is an astonishing feat from both performers that neither Gary nor Alana come across as creepy, pestering or predatory; Gary is openly attracted to Alana, often to the point of jealousy, but the basis of their relationship is never really sexual but a meeting of two perfectly compatible personalities.
Partnerships are a strange thing: rarely frictionless, they are often a source of strife and pain. We yearn for connection, but the most intense connections often yield the most catastrophe. Anderson has always been brilliant at playing with this inherent paradox, from the violent business partnership of There Will Be Blood, to the lunatics of Magnolia and the loners of Punch Drunk Love, careering through an increasingly surreal world in search of someone with whom to share it. Rarely have two people belonged together more than Gary and Alana, even in their more impatient or downright vindictive moments. While those moments invariably pass, their intense connection sustains throughout. Like the stick that balances a unicycle rider on a tightrope, it’s an exhilarating feeling that would feel like wheeling mania were it not for the way that Gary and Alana balance each other. It is utterly beguiling and deeply, profoundly romantic.