BY JAKE COYLE, RELATED PRESS
It’s school photo day at a high school in the San Fernando Valley in the opening scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s set “Licorice Pizza”.
The photographer’s assistant, Alana (Alana Haim), paces up and down a long line of students waiting in the sunshine in front of a gym. She hardly looks at them, but one of them is noticed. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) looks at her and does not let go of her, even though she does everything possible to ignore him. He’s a 15-year-old actor, she’s in her twenties, but his attempt to record him – sweetly straightforward, with a not-very-fake maturity – makes her smile reluctantly.
“You’re like little Robert Goulet or Dean Martin,” she says.
Anderson’s camera circles them as they leave, and while few moments match the magic of this opening, “Licorice Pizza” never stops flipping into a sunny, infectious groove. Anderson’s ninth film, his shaggiest, most loving and perhaps the one I wanted to see again right after it was over, is a charmingly relaxed love letter to the valley of his youth, an ode to a bygone, pre-digital era, and a complete eye-catcher.
“Licorice Pizza” takes its name from a regional record store from the time that actually never appears in the film. But the lack of the vinyl store only adds to the feeling that the bright air of Anderson’s film belongs to a gone time. I think it was pretty new that the ’70s wasn’t that long ago. But that decade is now nearly half a century from today – the same distance from the 70s to the flappers and speakeasies of the 20s.
With lush details, a lot of momentum and a soundtrack with David Bowie and Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Licorice Pizza” conjures up a gentler, more chaotic time. It’s certainly nostalgic, but also peppered with memories of the shortcomings of that era. The spell of this opening shot, for example, is broken with a blow on the buttocks of an older man.
Contrary to the characteristic events of the era, such as the gas crisis and the breaking of the waterbed, Anderson traces the intersecting relationship between Gary and Alana. Alana refuses to accept Gary as a friend, but they have a hard-to-articulate bond – friends, business partners, perhaps soul mates – that keeps them revolving around each other despite the embarrassing age difference. In a film so richly specific to the 1970s, their romance, like any love, exists outside of time.
The whole film, shot in 35mm, feels like a collection of memories and old, probably embellished stories. “Licorice Pizza”, full of comical bits and pieces, is based on the anecdotes of Gary Goetzman, a producer and actor best known as Tom Hanks’ production partner. That Hollywood is on the other side of the hill is a constant source of intrigue and farce. Sean Penn replaces William Holden. A wonderfully exaggerated Bradley Cooper feverishly plays Jon Peters, Barbra Streisand’s friend. Benny Safdie later joins Alana as a local politician. As portraits of older men for Alana, they just make Gary look like a cute, real exception.
As an amiable, sometimes satirical odyssey with oversized characters, “Licorice Pizza” reminded me of an Elaine May film. It’s a golden detour for Anderson, who rarely gets lost outside of California, but whose theme, mood, and tone appeal is endlessly unpredictable. As a love story, it’s not that different from his previous film “Phantom Thread” or the earlier “Punch Drunk Love” (in which Cooper’s late father Philip Seymour Hoffman, a regular at Anderson who sells mattresses – a delicate connection to the waterbeds, which his son is selling in “Licorice Pizza”). Even the self-promoting Gary could be a junior version of some of the greats of Anderson’s previous films: Philip Baker Hall’s player in “Hard Eight”; Mark Wahlberg’s porn star on “Boogie Nights”; Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil man in “There Will Be Blood”.
But “Licorice Pizza” feels like something else, like the culmination of a deconstructionist phase for Anderson – a virtuoso filmmaker who has been involved in his most expansive epics (“Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia”, “There Will Be Blood”, “The Master “) Has increasingly moved in the direction of humble, organic little films. Anderson was always a personal filmmaker and seemed to be steadily drifting away. His fingerprints on his films are less emphatic, but ubiquitous. (As with “Phantom Thread,” Anderson acts as his own cameraman here, this time at Michael Bauman’s side.) “Licorice Pizza,” which includes cameos from Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife), John C. Reilly, and others, could be derived from Goetzman’s stories, but to Anderson it almost feels like a home movie made with friends and family.
“Are these lines or these real?” asks Alana in one of several scenes set in the Tail o ‘the Cock bar and restaurant in Encino.
It is the performances of Haim and Hoffman that give the “Licorice Pizza” its authenticity most. Neither of them has starred in a movie before, and their fresh-faced presences electrify the movie. Hoffman, 18, who starred in an Anderson film, is obviously poignant, but he has a sincerity of his own. An even bigger revelation is Haim, the youngest of the three San Fernando Valley sisters that make up the band Haim. (Anderson, a fan, has made several music videos for her.) Gary already knows himself, but Alana finds out. What Haim is able to control a daring escape backwards in a moving van only seems to expand as “Licorice Pizza” makes its merry way home.
“Licorice Pizza,” an MGM publication, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language, sexual material, and some drug use. Running time: 133 minutes. Four out of four stars.
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP