Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh
Paul Thomas Anderson has directed some of my all-time favourite films.
Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood are all gems, a triumvirate that any filmmaker would be proud to leave as a cinematic legacy. But more recently, his work has underwhelmed me. Inherent Vice (2014) was an incoherent mess and 2017’s Phantom Thread – though wildly acclaimed by many critics – left me curiously unmoved.
On the face of it then, Licorice Pizza feels like a return to his comfort zone, exploring the sleazy canyons of the San Fernando Valley in the early 70s, an era that yielded such delights in Boogie Nights. This is the story of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a supremely confident fifteen-year-old child ‘actor’ and all- round entrepreneur, with an extended family working to his orders on a variety of different projects. While it quickly becomes clear that Gary may be overestimating his own genius, he seems to have convinced a surprising number of others to give his projects a whirl.
Then, out of the blue, he falls in love at first sight with Alana (Alana Haim) who is twenty-five and makes no bones about telling Gary that he hasn’t a hope in hell of ending up with her. (This age thing, by the way, feels needlessly controversial. Hoffman’s actual age is eighteen and Haim thirty, so it would have had the same dynamic if they’d simply nudged Gary’s age up a year or so. Just saying.)
Despite Alana’s protestations, something sticks and she agrees to meet him for a drink. Soon enough, she becomes his loyal sidekick (although she’s insistent that they’re just friends), and he’s trying to get her into the movies…
What follows is an exuberant scramble of a film, as Gary and Alana run (and I mean literally) all around the valley, struggling through the ups and downs of an on/off relationship, while Gary tries out his madcap enterprises, setting himself up as a purveyor of waterbeds and – when the oncoming fuel crisis puts the kibosh on that – relaunching himself as the owner of a pinball arcade. The anarchic sprawl that ensues in that emporium probably mirrors the kind of youthful carnage that was played out in the Licorice Pizza record stores from which the film takes its name. – but that’s just my best guess.
Along the way, the duo encounter ageing action-movie star, Jack Holden (Sean Penn), desperate to impress Alana with an impromptu motorbike stunt, and terrifying coke freak Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) who urgently wants to purchase a water bed for his wife, Barbara Streisand! Watch out too for a sensational cameo from Harriet Samsom Harris as Gary’s agent, Mary Grady, who delivers an object lesson in how to make the most of limited screen time.
This is a kinetic, adrenalin-fuelled movie, pushed along by bold, swooping cinematography and a no-holds-barred 70s soundtrack. Hoffman (the son of Anderson’s old muse, Philip Seymour Hoffman) is terrific as Gary and has great chemistry with Haim. She is, of course, a member of the rock trio that bears her name (for whom Anderson has shot several videos) and, as if to emphasise the ‘home movie’ feel of the project, Haim’s sisters – and even her parents – have supporting roles to play in this story.
While Licorice Pizza can’t claim to be up there with the very best of Anderson’s films, it nevertheless delivers a thoroughly enjoyable ride as Gary and Alana run side-by-side and finally – inevitably- towards each other. I fully expect to see its two stars going on to greater things.
And for Paul Thomas Anderson, this is definitely a step in the right direction.