LICORICE PIZZA is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most approachable film — and potentially his best

Introduction

Hey kings and kweens. Today we’re talking about a new film — Licorice Pizza. This is the newest film from world-renowned director Paul Thomas Anderson. I really loved this movie a lot. I think this is Anderson’s most approachable film and potentially one of his best. There are three things I want to talk about with this movie.

I want to talk about the appropriate juvenile nature of the story. I want to talk about the skilled usage of actors in this movie. I also want to talk about its success in using the filmic language.

Background

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most interesting directors working today and he may very well be one of the greatest directors of all time. His movies tend to be incredibly emotional dramas focusing on crazy broken family units. Often the definition of the family unit is atypical or amorphous such as a group of porn stars in Boogie Nights or a burgeoning cult in The Master. Almost all of his characters are deeply psychologically damaged. This can be a demented ambition that borders on sociopathy like with Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Or it can be a tragic isolation resulting from intense social anxiety as seen with Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love. I think those two examples showcase the range of Anderson’s characters. There are consistent themes in his movies but each project is distinct. His movies are intense, memorable, and most of all unique.

Anderson uniquely writes the screenplay for all of his movies — although two of them were based on a book. There are other writer/directors working today — people like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Rian Johnson, among many others — but Paul Thomas Anderson is unique because he is also one of the most accomplished visual storytellers. You don’t typically get a lot of writer/directors who also have a command of what I call the “filmic language.” And Anderson’s movies are so purely… movies. I don’t know if I can articulate this in a way that makes any sense. There’s a lot of ways a movie can make an impact on you. Anderson’s movies almost always achieve their impact through the moving pictures that makeup the movie. It’s not from the writing, or the acting, or whatever. It’s the composition of shots, the movement of the camera, the editing of a montage sequence. It’s the movie. Maybe that sounds pretentious but if you know… you know.

When I watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I think about Stanley Kubrick’s advice that directors shouldn’t write their own script but instead adapt someone else’s story. He said this because he thought directors should be focused on the visuals. Kubrick said film should be approached more like music — as a combination of feelings and moods rather than a strict “story.” If you get too attached to the writing, you may lose the visual storytelling that is so vital for film. Paul Thomas Anderson’s body of work is really the best expression of that advice — even though he writes all of his movies — because his films are so uniquely visual compared to what mainstream film tends to be.

As much as Paul Thomas Anderson has a reputation for being a notably accomplished visual artist, he has also developed a reputation as “the people’s director.” I don’t want to get too carried away with this label, because his movies are overwhelmingly preferred by the college-educated, but he does maintain a pure appreciation for film as a medium similar to someone like Tarantino or Kevin Smith even. His background is remarkably similar to those two other directors, despite their films being very different from one another.

Anderson famously went to film school for two days before dropping out. He later said you can learn more about film by listening to directors’ commentary rather than wasting money on school. It’s always great when one of the best of a medium blasts the so-called academics who claim to understand it. Anderson reportedly funded the final release of his first movie Hard Eight by winning blackjack games in Los Angeles. That’s really not a typical way to fund anything and suggests he had to make his own way into the industry. He’s not someone’s cousin or anything, he got to where he is because of his talent and dedication to the craft.

Everything Anderson says in interviews is also illuminating to what he values in good cinema. Earlier this year, Anderson was asked to name his favorite movie of 2021 and he said he “liked Venom 2” — and refused to elaborate further. I have not seen Venom 2, but I doubt most Anderson fans would assume that’d be his favorite movie. Anderson was also the first director to cast Adam Sandler in a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love, way before other movies like Reign Over Me, Funny People, or Uncut Gems. Reportedly the reason for this casting wasn’t because Anderson believed in Sandler’s acting chops, but rather he just thought Big Daddy was really funny. And he just wanted to work with Sandler.

These stories suggest Anderson isn’t someone who gets caught up in the prestige and glamor of Hollywood. He’s very dedicated to the artform — specifically the part of the artform where a lot of normal people like watching movies. That’s the one thing I would tell people skeptical of watching a Paul Thomas Anderson film. They seem like they might be the exact kind of Oscar bait you want to avoid, but his movies are so effortlessly down-to-earth. I think anyone can get something out of them and Licorice Pizza may be the best place to start.

Premise

The premise of Licorice Pizza is very simple. This is a coming-of-age story focused on two lead characters. Alana Kane is a 25-year-old woman who works as an assistant photographer for a company that takes school yearbook photos. Alana still lives with her parents and two sisters, and she’s frustrated by where she’s at in life. Through her work, Alana meets 15-year-old Gary Valentine. Gary is a high school student, who is also an aspiring child actor and entrepreneur. Gary boldly pursues Alana in a romantic capacity despite being ten years younger than her. She’s skeptical of his sincerity and this kicks off a yearlong “will they or won’t they” budding courtship. That’s really it. There’s not much of a plot to this movie. You’re following these two through various events that all relate to their ability to relate to one another.

Juvenile storytelling

Years ago, I heard a hot take that all coming-of-age stories set in high school are actually based on the development you go through as a young adult graduating college. I’m not certain the cause of this phenomenon — maybe it’s an obsession with youth — but I do think its accurate. A lot of coming-of-age stories are strangely adult. They’re disconnected with the most important element of youth which is how stupid you are when you’re a teenager. I think the most successful coming-of-age stories have connected with the immaturity of youth. That’s why a movie like Superbad made more of an impact than a self-serious alternative like Dead Poets Society. You watch these movies to feel a connection to your younger self and the best movies in this genre are able to do that.

It is immediately obvious Licorice Pizza is a coming-of-age story that understands what it’s like to be young. This movie has the feeling of endless possibility, and fearlessness that can come with youth — depending on your personality. All of this emanates from Gary’s character as the confident and charismatic salesman. When Gary hits on Alana in the opening scene of this movie, he is inviting her to re-enter what it’s like to be young — full of optimism and potential. By extension that offer is being given to the audience. I think that’s how this movie gets around accidentally being more mature than its characters should allow. We accept Alana’s interest in Gary — despite the significant age difference — because we know being an adult isn’t all its made out to be. There is an allure to returning to that world and we accept it because it’s fun. Especially for Alana since she still lives with her family. A lot of the magic of this movie is marveling at the adventurousness both Gary and Alana are able to embody thanks to the thrill of their budding relationship. They’re competing for one another’s attention and approval which stretches their own potential the way any good performative relationship ought to.

The positive side of being young is represented, but I also really appreciated how much of the conflict is so juvenile. I think the immaturity of our main characters grounds them in reality and makes it easier to connect with the film. For example, there is a minor rift in Gary and Alana’s relationship when Gary gets her an audition and the interviewer asks her if she’d be willing to appear nude. Alana says yes. Gary is offended by this, for pretty much the exact reason you might expect from a 15-year-old boy with a crush. Gary’s contention is if Alana is willing to be naked in front of everyone, then she should at least agree to be naked in front of him. Which descends into “Hey Alana, show me your tits.” This is a great representation of teenagers’ unending capacity to redress their animalistic puberty-driven desires as deeply serious and profound crises. Really it’s just a horny teenager who saw an opportunity. It’s also a good example of how alluring genuine interest from another person can be even if it’s not expressed in a flattering or respectful way. We learn when we are young — imperfectly — how nice it feels to be wanted. Which is to say, a lot of the conflict in this movie is both so dumb and completely believable. I thought this was a strength of the movie. Coming-of-age stories should be about what it’s like to come of age. That includes being embarrassed by the person you once were.

Excellent usage of actors.

This movie is really great at weaving these two strong main characters through a series of equally interesting side characters with their own little subplots.

I want to talk about all the great characters in this movie but I really need to focus on the strength of the lead stars Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. I don’t like talking about actors. I don’t think acting matters in movies. I did really like these two stars because they look like normal people. Of course, they’re not normal people. Cooper Hoffman is the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman — an Academy Award winning actor and longtime collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson. And Alana Haim is one of the three members of the pop rock band HAIM.

Despite these actors’ connections to the fame of Hollywood, I liked that neither of the stars were so unbelievable attractive. I mean, clearly they’re not unattractive. But there’s always the push for more sex appeal in movies and television. Pull up that chart of the cast of ER where all the doctors get younger and hotter as the show goes on. Both the stars in Licorice Pizza are attractive, but not distractingly so. It’s not like Little Women where you’re asked to believe this quaint little family of meager means just so happens to have birthed three of the most attractive women on the planet. Oh, by the way their best friend is played by a modern day sex symbol. I like that movie, but give me a break. Both Gary and Alana have an approachable look which distinguishes this movie from others in the genre.

The believability of our stars accentuates the cast of insane characters both Gary and Alana meet throughout the story. They range from very bombastic characters like Bradley Cooper as infamous Hollywood producer Jon Peters. If you’re unfamiliar with Peters, I encourage you to look up on YouTube the Kevin Smith story about Superman Lives. It is insane. There are also quite a few understated characters who only appear for a handful of scenes. Alana has some early scenes with her family and another character and those additional side characters were effective at filling in Alana’s world. You get a glimpse of who her family is while adding to her character.

Probably the most controversial and funniest character is a guy who runs a Japanese restaurant. He is a white man who talks to his Japanese wife in this very condescending fake accent that can only be described as racist. It’s the kind of blatantly offensive behavior that is so awkward you can only laugh to relieve your own discomfort. A lot of critics have been upset with this scene and this character because it is just a guy being racist played for laughs. But this movie is meant to take place during the late 1970s and that era was very different from today. The movie wants to faithfully evoke that period and I think part of that is including people like this character who are really relics of that time. They’re the oddities you don’t see anymore. I thought the scene was funny because I can connect that character to memories of strange adults in my own youth. I would say this scene is similar to a scene from another coming-of-age film Boyhood where the main character is giving out Barack Obama signs and some old white guy says “Do I look like I want a Barack Hussein Obama sign?” I think everyone has a story of interacting with an adult that did or said something that was so obviously inappropriate. Those experiences stay with you. This Japanese restaurant guy is like any of the many crazy people you’re forced to interact with when you’re a teenager and can’t control who’s part of your life. I thought it was a funny moment in the movie, much like how all the other crazy characters in this movie are entertaining in their own way. They’re just crazy in ways that don’t trigger people’s modern sensibilities for when they should be offended.  

I was also pleasantly surprised by Benny Safdie’s contribution to this movie as a local politician running for office. Benny Safdie is one half of the Safdie Brothers who directed Uncut Gems and Good Time — Benny actually stars in Good Time with a very different role than the one in Licorice Pizza. He’s very quaint and unassuming here. I was surprised he made as much of an impact as he did in the 15 minutes he’s on screen. His character is part of the last saga our main characters go through in this movie. By the time Safdie shows up, it feels like the movie was about to end. I thought it was almost over, so I was a little disappointed at first. I thought the movie may have been overstaying its welcome but it ended up proving to me one of its biggest strengths which is its impressive understanding of the filmic language.

Visual storytelling

The politician subplot is a story that’s mainly experienced by Alana. Gary’s not connected to any aspect of it. On top of that, this political story has its own intense drama that’s distinct from Alana’s own story. She’s just along for the ride — as is the audience. As I said, I was really disappointed with this part of the movie because it felt so far from the coming-of-age story I thought I was watching. We suddenly get this intense drama of a stressed-out politician balancing his personal life with his professional persona. I felt disconnected with this part of movie and it was because Alana really doesn’t have any contributions to this storyline.

But I realized, that was kind of the point. The political subplot is at the end of the movie and it shows how Alana has progressed so much through her experiences with Gary that she’s kind of outgrown him. This section of the movie is a representation of where her life could go, but it’s telling that the key moment in this sequence is Alana appearing at a dinner with another couple and she’s the third wheel. So yes, she’s progressed enough to make it in her life that she gets a seat at the table for this dinner. This dinner with very important people. But she has no importance at that table. She’s on the sidelines watching someone else’s story unfold. She isn’t starring in her own romance story, she’s watching someone else’s. I got this from the movie not because Alana said “Gee wiz, I’m totally watching someone else’s romance story right now.” No character said anything like “Look at this woman, she’s not even supposed to be here!” I could feel the point the movie wanted to make by seeing Alana not have any significance to the drama taking place in front of me. I wasn’t told how Alana felt in this situation, I experienced Alana’s situation and I felt the way her character felt. That’s what I’m talking about when I say this movie is so good at the filmic language.

When it’s done right, filmmaking can achieve things that no other artform can. And I actually think the best moment in this movie was a few scenes after that dinner. The movie is faced with the gargantuan task of expressing to the audience what love feels like. And this is a common gripe I have with romance in film in general.

When I think about romance in movies, I think about this clever quip that’s usually directed at rationalists when they claim they only believe in things that can be proven. The quip is “prove to me you love your wife.” The intent of this comment is to express there are some things that cannot be proven you can only intuit them. It is a fool’s errand to apply an academic understanding of something as emotional as love. I think about this quip, because expressing love in a movie is so difficult. It may just be difficult in general, but especially difficult in movies. I watch so many romances in film and for a lot of them it’s not apparent to me the two characters even like each other. They’re usually both hot and clever — and maybe that’s what love is, just a bunch of hot and clever people being clever and hot together — but that’s why I have come to resent love stories in movies. I have this parlor game where I challenge people to think of a movie that doesn’t have a half-assed romance in it. Every movie ever has some pathetic make out scene no matter how irrelevant it is to the story. The tragedy is love is one of the most powerful experiences you can have in life, so to see an artform reduce it to sex appeal is an ongoing disappointment I have for film. 

But without spoiling anything… there is a shot in this movie where you see Alana running. And seeing the excitement she has while she’s running, and knowing the context of how we got to this point, and the way its edited together. It was just one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in film this year.

It’s the type of moment that can only be accomplished by a filmmaker with a strong command of the craft. There are a lot of coming-of-age movies, but Licorice Pizza is the one that I think is most exclusive to film. It’s not like a Perks of Being a Wallflower where you could just as well read the book and get the same experience, if not more of the experience. There are entire sequences in Licorice Pizza that rely on the skilled application of the filmic language. This moment of Alana running, was the moment that made me feel love and it is what made me love this movie. It may not be the moment that wins you over, but this movie is full of emotion, feeling, and excitement. It’s really great.

Closing Thoughts

I would call Licorice Pizza pure kino. I’d give it a 5 out of 5. It has everything that is great about film. Not only that, but it is uniquely a story that can only be enjoyed as a film. This is the most-film coming-of-age story you will ever see. It’s also easily Paul Thomas Anderson’s most approachable movie. The premise is very simple. It’s a lot of fun. There’s nothing to think about. There’s no “point” or anything like that. It is just a wonderful movie, one of the best this year, if not one of Anderson’s best films in his career.

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