Review: Licorice Pizza, by Paul Thomas Anderson

Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature film, takes its wacky title from a chain of record stores based in Southern California, which was very successful in the 1970s. The director freely declares that the name of this brand – itself borrowed from an issue of Abbott & Costello – evokes to him better than any other a submerged imagination; that of his youth in the San Fernando Valley, where he still lives. One of these stores, in San Diego, provides the setting for a scene of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, teen movie cult of Amy Heckerling, here claimed by Anderson as her main influence alongsideAmerican Graffiti by George Lucas. This learning story, punctuated by hits or rarities vintage which one would say programmed by a jukebox, is thus both autobiographical and ultra referenced on the filmic and musical levels. Hence the impression of discovering a work in the form of a patchwork, a random montage of disparate sequences as much set in sound as on stage. It is that after the London detour of Phantom ThreadAnderson resumes his intimate exploration of Los Angeles and its Hollywood spells, the demystification of which does not exclude more trivial delights, sublimated by the force of memory.

my small business

As Phantom Thread, Licorice Pizza begins with an unexpected flirtation, except that the age difference has replaced the class difference: Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 15-year-old high school student; Alana Kane (Alana Haim, member of the pop trio Haim), in her twenties, is the assistant of a school photographer with wandering hands. The teenager radiates a somewhat excessive confidence for a boy of his age, which must probably be attributed to his experience as a child actor. His career, however, seems to be stalling, judging by his unsuccessful auditions, and Gary, even before he has reached his majority, is already thinking of his retraining. We are in California, in 1973, and quite naturally, it reinvents itself in self-made manby showing a flair, even an ambition, which will lead him to bet in quick succession on the business waterbeds and then pinball machines, which are about to be legalized after having initially been assimilated to slot machines.

The slot machine is of course America, in which the coins pile up like a heap of lost dreams. The role played by Cooper Hoffman is also reminiscent of that of the blackmailer portrayed by his father in Punch Drunk Love, “King of the mattress” during the day and extortionist at night from users of the pink telephone. But it is still time for the awkwardness of a first romance, which is expressed in a hilarious way during a phone call where the romantic comedy is tinged with gravity, an older rival having meanwhile imposed itself to the detriment of Gary. Their embarrassed silence is emblematic of Anderson’s touching eccentricity towards women, on whom he continues to cast the same gaze full of fascination and awkwardness as his character. In Licorice Pizzaif the love is not as cow as in Phantom Thread, where all shots were allowed, including poisoning, it is nonetheless a combat sport, the events of which are disputed on all terrains: on foot (Gary and Alana are often running, side side by side or in search of each other, supported in their momentum by magnificent lateral tracking shots); on a motorbike, during a stunt performed by a drunk star on the decline; and finally at the wheel of a truck that silently descends Beverly Hills in reverse, engine off, as if sliding down a toboggan.

Yolo Pizza

This last scene refers to Boogie Nights where, already, a Corvette parked on a slope made it possible to escape the fury of a local dealer. In more ways than one, Licorice Pizza offers a reinterpretation both intimate and unbridled of this very demonstrative film, the second of PTA, which had ensured its director an international notoriety. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) and Gary Valentine have the same profile as “provincial” teenagers determined to succeed at all costs, except that the former aspires to become a (porn) star, where the second gives up his quest for notoriety for more immediate gratifications. Of these portraits of hustlers, oozes a vision of masculinity perverted by capitalism, far removed from the iconic one exalted by Tarantino, whose antiheroes – Django, Cliff Booth – can alter the very course of history. At Anderson, the men often show monstrous intransigence in their profession (the prospector of There Will Be Blood, the designer of Phantom Thread) or pride themselves on a performative or hypertrophied virility (the guru incel Frank TJ Mackey in Magnolia, Eddie Adams and his oversized member), all having in common a dizzying lack of self-knowledge. In this gallery of grimacing puppets, take place today Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, who one would think emerged from shampoo) and Jack Holden (Sean Penn, in a parody of William Holden), whose rantings, entertaining as they are, speak volumes about the ravages of celebrity culture.

In Anderson, men are also eternal children, who can only emancipate themselves by ending quasi-incestuous relationships with their surrogate sisters or mothers. Here, however, it is Alana that her omnipresent family stifles, confirming that women have changed their status in this cinema where they have long occupied a more peripheral place, since the invocation of Shasta (Katherine Waterston) in Inherent Vice by a narrator named Sortilège. After revealing Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread), the director demonstrates once again the exceptional direction of actors of which he is capable with Haim, marvelous in this very first role where she shines by her cigeny and the precision of her acting. As the entrepreneurial instinct of Gary takes precedence over his artistic ambitions, Alana makes her way through the convolutions of the story, with the only compass being the certainty that this relationship can reveal her to herself. Perhaps she will not survive the loss of their innocence, already recorded by the entry into adulthood in the midst of the oil crisis and the political disillusions endured with a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles (Benny safdie). But by mixing up to confuse the small and the big story, Licorice Pizza re-enchants this pivotal moment by indulging in a collage of reminiscences where the past is never idealized or simplified. The accuracy of its evocation is due to a staging permanently set on the hectic rhythm of this couple, who grope their way in an illuminated night.

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