Young, Gifted and Crusty
Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza is a film seeking to evoke that warm nostalgic glow you get when thinking back on the crazy things you did when you were young and a bit over-excitable. It's part of a long and honourable tradition of such movies and TV shows, going back to things like The Wonder Years and American Graffiti. Licorice Pizza itself sounds like a bit of a fridge title unless you are particularly well-versed in Californian pop culture from the early 1970s – apparently it was the name of a chain of record shops, ‘licorice pizza' being the nickname of a vinyl recording. If that sounds like a rather niche and in-jokey title, that's perhaps not an entirely unfair conclusion, but the film itself is likeable, crowd-pleasing stuff, directed by Anderson with his usual deftness.
I think it is necessary to stress that the film isn't as self-indulgent as it may come across as in a summary. Alana Haim plays Alana Kane, a woman in her mid-twenties trying to settle on a direction for her life, who is working as a photographer's assistant in California as the film opens. An assignment taking high school yearbook pictures leads to her meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a supremely confident and energetic fifteen-year-old – in addition to being a successful child actor, Gary is also very active as an entrepreneur. Not one to pay much attention to the reality of an age gap, Gary asks Alana out to dinner. She nearly laughs in his face, but ends up going along anyway for some reason. An unlikely friendship forms, but Alana is very clear that there is no prospect of anything romantic developing between them…
Nevertheless, their friendship deepens: she chaperones him on a publicity trip to New York, and then finds herself involved in Gary's latest money-making scheme: a company selling waterbeds. He even encourages her to pursue an acting career of her own. Some of these inevitably lead to moments of tension and downturns in their relationship, but it seems that there is always something drawing them back together…
Much of the charm of Licorice Pizza comes from the fact that this isn't just another straightforwardly nostalgic coming-of-age comedy-drama – the nature of the central relationship, not to mention the fact that one of the lead characters is a precocious teenage entrepreneur, marks it out as something much more offbeat and oddball. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is the fact much of it is apparently based on actual events – the film was apparently inspired by various stories told to Anderson by his friend (and Tom Hanks' long-time production partner) Gary Goetzman, who really was a child actor and waterbed salesman fifty years ago.
Nevertheless, the sheer weirdness of much of the story just adds to the infectious sense of fun and energy that permeates the movie. Perhaps this is in part a result of the fact that it is such a friends-and-family piece – Anderson's partner and children appear, he is a long-time friend of Alana Haim and her own family (the Haim clan naturally appear as Alana's relatives), making his acting debut as Gary is Cooper Hoffman, the son of Anderson's frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so on.
While the ups and downs of Gary and Alana's friendship are at the heart of the film, surrounding this thread are various other sub-plots, set-pieces and running jokes, most of them light-hearted if not actually silly. I was particularly amused by a plotline about a restaurant owner who can't actually speak Japanese, despite being married to a succession of women from that country; his attempts to communicate with them are very funny (though I should note that this element of the film has met with furrowed brows and sucked teeth in some quarters). There are pop-culture references aplenty, with many of the supporting characters clearly very lightly fictionalised versions of real people – Christine Ebersole plays a character based on Lucille Ball, Sean Penn plays a version of William Holden, and Tom Waits a version of Mark Robson (director of several of Holden's films).
Most peculiar of all is a ferocious cameo by Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, a hairdresser turned film producer long renowned in Hollywood circles as a bizarre and outlandish figure (Peters' unlikely plot stipulations while working as producer on the abortive Superman Lives have become legendary in and of themselves). Bradley Cooper's casting alone virtually qualifies as some sort of convoluted in-joke, given that Peters produced the 1976 version of A Star Is Born (he was Barbra Streisand's boyfriend at the time) and managed to land himself a producer's credit on Cooper's own take on the story. It's not unfair to suggest that the film depicts Peters as some variety of maniac; what makes it quite so peculiar is that Peters is not fictionalised at all, but presented under his real name, and Peters himself was apparently completely on board with this (with the proviso that one of his best pick-up lines be incorporated into the script).
This is just one of the film's incidental pleasures, though, of which there are many. Linking all of them are two fantastically winning and appealing performances by Haim and Hoffman, both of whom bring great naturalness and warmth to the film. The script is carefully judged: Gary is precocious for his edge, she still perhaps struggling to find herself, which makes their friendship more believable; but at the same time, the eruptions of jealousy and childishness which cause them occasional problems are entirely credible.
It's a piece of feel-good entertainment, not anything deeper or more profound than that, and with less darkness around its edges than most of Anderson's more recent films. I find that Anderson is another of those directors who I've been keeping tabs on without particularly meaning to – I still remember going to see Magnolia early in 2000 and having my mind well and truly blown, a seminal moment that changed my whole perception of what modern cinema was capable of. None of Anderson's subsequent films have quite matched that for me, but Licorice Pizza comes closer than most, being his most accessible and purely enjoyable film in years.