Good Fun, by Bob Connally

26 Dec

While Paul Thomas Anderson has been one of the more celebrated filmmakers of the past quarter century, it’s not often that one might describe his movies as being “fun.” He’s certainly never made anything approaching a mainstream crowd pleaser. The most lighthearted of his first 8 films, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, is incredibly divisive. While it remains my personal favorite of his works- and I’ve honestly at least liked all of them- I remember the vitriolic response many people I knew personally had to it. It wasn’t enough for some of them to simply dislike it, they took it upon themselves to be angry with me that I had loved it so much. I can’t remember that happening with any other movie. 

After Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson made the much more dramatic There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread. While he did make the more comedic Inherent Vice in the midst of all of that, its oddness would make it as off-putting to mainstream audiences as anything else he had made. Regardless of tone, none of Anderson’s movies have really crossed over to appeal to the average moviegoer while he remains a favorite of the kind of “discerning” cinephiles who tend to visit this site. While most of us wouldn’t consider this a shortcoming, Anderson himself has gone on record to lament this. “I watch [Steven Spielberg] movies and know: Those are fairy tales. I understand what he does. And I make a film on cancer and frogs – however I want that many spectators nevertheless! I find that is a good goal, and I consider it a weakness of mine that I haven’t reached it yet.” He’s also openly expressed how much he enjoys superhero movies, taking the opposite stance of many other auteur directors. While it has become tiresome for interviewers to press filmmakers for their thoughts on the MCU, Anderson’s feelings make it clear that he is the kind of film viewer who likes a wide variety of movies for different reasons and can appreciate more populist films on their own merits.

I would never want to see Anderson compromise his artistic integrity to chase box-office but the thought of him making something that has a wide appeal is certainly something I would welcome. With his ninth film, Licorice Pizza, he’s not going to achieve that really but this is as close as he is likely to ever get. The result is a truly joyous, entertaining, and yes, fun film that is likely going to be one of his more rewatchable movies.

Set in Anderson’s favorite place, southern California’s San Fernando Valley, and his favorite time period, the 1970’s, Licorice Pizza grabs its audience right from the start. 15-year old Gary Valentine (newcomer and son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cooper Hoffman) prepares for his school picture day when the bored, cynical Alana Kane (Alana Haim in her acting debut) offers him a mirror. The 25-year old Alana works for the company taking the pictures and the supremely outgoing and confident Gary strikes up a conversation with her and even asks her out to dinner in spite of their age difference. Alana is at once annoyed and charmed by Gary and by the time they reach the photographer she has informed him that they can be friends but that they can’t be a couple “because that’s illegal.” For reasons that Alana herself doesn’t really understand, she ends up meeting Gary for dinner at his favorite Thursday night restaurant and while they seem to have nothing in common they connect and become great friends. Gary makes no secret that he wishes to be more than that while Alana maintains the boundary.

Licorice Pizza is not a plot heavy film by any means. Its focus is on the odd friendship between teenage human dynamo Gary and aimless young adult Alana. In spite of his age and minimal parental presence, Gary comes from a family with enough means that he is able to start up a business selling a brand new product called the waterbed, enlisting his friends and younger brother to help him. In addition to this, Gary is already acting professionally, describing himself to Alana as “a showman.” He hasn’t had any sizeable roles yet but he has no doubt he’ll be a star. Alana helps him sell waterbeds and in turn he gets her interviews with casting directors in an attempt to start an acting career of her own. All the while, the two alternate between being inseparable and being furious with each other and not speaking for lengthy periods of time.

Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a self-assured filmmaker but there’s a marked difference between his electrically charged earlier movies and his more deliberately paced work from There Will Be Blood on. Licorice Pizza seems to fuse those sensibilities together. Anderson isn’t making movies the way he did as a younger man anymore but he’s still in touch with that part of himself enough that he’s able to mix that with the maturity he’s gained with experience and age. Throughout his career and regardless of age, his command of the frame, of pacing, of character, and dialogue have always stood out as superb. Like his friend Quentin Tarantino, Anderson is a true complete filmmaker. He’s not a subpar writer who elevates his screenplays with his direction, nor is he an excellent screenwriter who’s a bit dull visually. He’s great at everything, even getting two outstanding lead performances out of first time actors. Hoffman and Haim are the kinds of performers you can’t take your eyes off of. Everything they do is interesting and they are each able to reach all of the emotional places Anderson takes them. 

As the son of one of Anderson’s favorite actors, Hoffman proves himself to be his own man as an actor. He’s never aping his father but there are little moments that are reminiscent of him in a way that brings a smile to your face. Granted, most things in this film bring a smile to your face, but there’s something really special in seeing the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman on screen and giving us some little glimpses of someone so many of us miss dearly.

Haim has the task of playing the more complicated character of the two in Alana. Alana freely admits that she “think[s] it’s weird I hang out with Gary and his 15-year old friends,” and in the wrong hands, she’s a character who could be offputting to the audience and someone we’d simply see as being a loser. She makes puzzling decisions and there are plenty of moments that will make the audience cringe a bit but Haim keeps us rooting for her. We want her to get it together but whether she does or not, we like her.

Together, there’s a chemistry that makes the peculiar friendship between Gary and Alana always feel believable through its ups and downs. Their misadventures are fun to watch and at times they get themselves into some scary situations. One involving a psychotic character played by Bradley Cooper is likely to be the most talked about and memorable sequence of the film. It’s at once funny and intense and it may stand out as one of the best bits of filmmaking Anderson has yet done or may ever do.

If you’re wondering what the title Licorice Pizza is supposed to mean, the movie doesn’t answer it. At no point in the film is anyone seen eating either of those things, let alone together. Maybe it’s as simple as it’s a strange pairing, much like Alana and Gary are, but knowing Anderson, I doubt it’s that cut and dried. I look at it a bit like old Marx Brothers titles (Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, etc.). It doesn’t really matter what it means. What matters is that the film itself is an incredible pleasure to watch and while it definitely won’t be a Spider-Man: No Way Home-sized hit, it’s a movie that will make a lot of people very happy. I hope to see Anderson make more movies that leave us feeling this way.

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