Coming of Age in 1973 Los Angeles: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza”

Licorice Pizza (2021) – Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Remy A. Renault

     In Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort, Licorice Pizza, a struggling teenage actor named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) becomes enamored with a woman a decade his senior upon glimpsing her at school on photo day. In a beautifully shot opening sequence, we’re introduced to Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the woman in question, from behind as she proceeds down an exterior corridor at Gary’s high school. Having glimpsed her a minute earlier, Gary is the only one to respond as she irritably offers a comb and a mirror to students waiting in line to have their picture taken. Her grouchiness quickly dissipates, however, as she becomes bemused by his uncharacteristically precocious behavior. The sequence itself almost feels musical in its briskness. It is so subtly edited and fluid in its camera movements that from the moment we see Alana walking down the corridor to the time their banter ends with Gary sitting down to have his photo taken in the school gymnasium, one feels they’ve just witnessed a single take. The viewer is rapidly propelled into the film’s timeline without any exposition. The only exposition of which Anderson is arguably guilty is an overreliance on vintage pop songs to signature various developments and mood shifts in his largely period-set narratives. 

     The pair ultimately agree to meet that evening at Tail o’ the Cock, a famous Hollywood hangout where Gary is a regular, and despite Alana’s initial apprehension, a friendship quickly blossoms as they engage in various adolescent escapades ranging from small business ventures to awkward acting auditions. A mutual attraction then slowly brews, even if their relationship remains platonic. Both characters even have trysts of their own throughout the film, but platonic or not, the chemistry between Hoffman and Haim was such that their age gap never crossed my mind while viewing the film. Alana’s driftlessness even serves to complement Gary’s precocity, which is why she doesn’t appear out of place among him and his friends while nonetheless alluding to her advanced age. She lives with her parents as a 25-year-old and insists to Gary during their first dinner together that she’ll still be taking school photos of kids when she’s thirty and that he will have forgotten her the next year. The progression of the film, however, suggests that won’t be the case. On a side note, some viewers were phased by Anderson’s cavalier depiction of racism in a few of the film’s scenes. One scene depicts racism towards Asians and another antisemitism. However, the film didn’t seem to be condoning the sentiments expressed on screen. The scenes simply appeared to be satirical depictions of the regressive mores that characterize much of American society even to this day. 

     With Pizza, Anderson seems to be taking himself less seriously than he has in the past, which isn’t to say his ambition has never lived up to its promise. It often has, but none of his previous films has routinely been described as either delightful or whimsy. His somber masterpiece The Master (2012) is anything but whimsy in its depiction of mid-century American psychosis, and the underrated Inherent Vice (2014), for all its playfulness, is too opaque to have adjectives implying enjoyability breezily applied to it. Pizza is much fluffier by comparison and is essentially a hangout movie, but it also bears many of the hallmarks of the coming-of-age genre. Youth is depicted as a series of trials and tribulations with a young man’s first love paramount among them. Unlike Anderson’s coming-of-age-themed Boogie Nights (1997), however, it contains little in the way of either the triumphant or the downright tragic, even if both films function as love letters to the San Fernando Valley of his childhood. The title ‘Licorice Pizza’ was even inspired by the name of a chain of vinyl record stores that existed in southern California in the seventies.  

     Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are admittedly impressive in their debut performances. Interestingly, they both acted the entire film without makeup.[1] Ever since The Master, Anderson has attempted to give his films a more tactile quality, which would be compromised by certain cosmetic adornments, such as the beautification of a lead actress, robbing her of a more natural appearance. The increasing emphasis on his actors has also reached a point where their presence is privileged above all else in the frame. In his earlier more ensemble-oriented films, the actors can almost come across as marionette-like whereas in his more recent efforts the material tends to primarily serve the star performers. Anderson still shoots on 35mm film, which enhances the tactile quality that would likely be lost if he switched to digital photography. Anderson does echo the movie brats in his almost naïve attachment to the movies as an innocent pastime, and his earlier works tend to ape various seventies figures, such as Altman and Kubrick, but the lush and flamboyant camera movements of his newer films superficially recall those of Max Ophüls. They also display an economy and precision in their craftsmanship that resembles that of a classical Hollywood filmmaker like John Ford. There’s never a wasted frame in his films, and the flamboyance is rarely mere window dressing but succeeds in heightening the camera’s relationship with the actors and the events depicted on screen. 

Pizza – Dir: P.T. Anderson

     The seeming tactility continues with Pizza, and the 70mm blow-up print is a feast for the eyes. One standout scene takes place at the Hollywood Palladium during a Teenage Fair where Gary goes to promote his new waterbed business. What’s distinctive about this sequence is the single take which begins with Gary and his friends removing his supplies from the car. The camera then enters the building to give us a brief tour of the event itself where we even see John C. Reilly in a memorable cameo. The use of atonal music by jazz artist Chico Hamilton enhances the scene’s sense of confusion and foreboding, as Gary agitatedly runs back and forth giving orders to his friends while preparing his presentation. Despite being set in a large convention center, the scene has a sense of claustrophobia, created by the fearful tracking shots, which, through their tentativeness, suggest danger lurking in the margins. Gary’s uncharacteristic anxiety is temporarily diffused, however, when he crosses paths with Alana who provides some reassurance, but this joyful interlude is then cut short by a disturbing and unexpected encounter that reestablishes the unsettling tone from the previous moment. 

     Nonetheless, the film isn’t without its shortcomings. Some of these drawbacks lie precisely in Gary’s precocity, which isn’t always credible. He rarely displays social anxiety and carries himself with an assurance that would be unexpected of a fifteen-year-old, especially one who doesn’t come from a privileged background. It also sometimes feels as though the two leads were written in the service of Anderson’s desired narrative ends with Gary’s sassiness the convenient complement (or foil) to Alana’s more sardonic demeanor. Make no mistake. It’s a good film, but the technical prowess attached to what is essentially a smoothly flowing hangout movie renders Licorice Pizza less satisfying than The Masterwhere the aesthetic choices reflect the psychological turmoil of Joaquin Phoenix’s shellshocked Freddie Quell as he navigates the psychosis of a spiritually sterile postwar America exemplified by cult leader and snake oil salesman Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). 

     Another predictable point of comparison for Anderson’s film is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). Both films are set in Los Angeles in different but adjacent years: Tarantino’s in 1969 and Anderson’s in 1973. However, Tarantino’s transparent nostalgia contrasts with Anderson’s more morally ambiguous take on the era of his childhood, as it’s tempered with reminders of less savory aspects of the time period. These include references to pervasive casual racism, as well as the OPEC-led oil embargo that impacts Gary’s ability to continue with his waterbed venture. Technical flourishes, such as Anderson’s handling of the sequence at the Hollywood Palladium are largely absent from Tarantino’s more unapologetically populist romp. Hollywood’s exuberance and the way it shamelessly relishes the most elemental joys of moviemaking can be intoxicating, however, even if Tarantino is rarely under the illusion his films should be taken seriously or as anything more than well-crafted pastiches of earlier populist styles of filmmaking, such as Westerns and 1970s martial arts films. As enjoyable as the film is, the depiction of A-list stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as struggling performers teetering on the fringes of showbusiness doesn’t always feel credible, but even the idea of them as victims of shifting tides and attitudes in the movie industry is ultimately played for laughs. Despite its flaws and in contradiction to the California Dream in which Tarantino revels, Pizza is still sensitive to the daily struggles accompanying an American middle-class existence, and this makes it a worthy watch. 


[1] Jérôme Momcilovic, « Jeunesses Américaines: Licorice Pizza de Paul Thomas Anderson: Des Joues Pâles Et Rosissantes », Cahiers Du Cinema, Janvier 2022, 17. 

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