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Licorice Pizza: Paul Thomas Anderson with a touch of nostalgia

Last updated on January 18, 2022

1973, in the Los Angeles area. Alana Kane and Gary Valentine meet on the day of the boy’s high school class photo. Alana is no longer a high school student, but is trying to find her way while working as the photographer’s assistant. Gary, on the other hand, already has acting experience, which he is quick to tell the girl to impress her. Amused and intrigued by his unusual confidence, she agrees to accompany him to New York for a television show. But nothing happens as planned…

Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson has made a habit of using titles whose meaning may, at first reading, escape us. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, or even the remake Phantom Thread do not necessarily tell us much about the main story, at most they give a tone, a color. It is only worse that Licorice Pizza seems to us enigmatic, to say the least; we imagine an improbable mixture, a risky attempt, the marriage between the classic dish, universal and timeless, that everyone knows (and appreciates) and the more original flavor that we more readily connect to childhood or desserts. Cinema is often a matter of cooking, of adjustments, of assortments, of balance, and the interpretation that we can try to make here is not totally without meaning, but here, Paul Thomas Anderson borrows his title from the name of a record store located in the San Fernando Valley, in Los Angeles. In this way, he indicates that he wants to evoke an era, a city, but also a very personal orientation, contrary to some of his last films which started from a well established plot.

The American Dream: In every American can hide a hero

Paul Thomas Anderson seems indeed very early to want to develop his own vision of the American Dream, the one that could make him a world-renowned director, and often adulated. We follow the steps of a young boy, a rather atypical high school student, who literally falls under the spell of a young woman older than him. He has dreams, ambition, optimism, positivism, and a great energy, which leads him to always nourish new projects, more or less eccentric, more or less doomed to success. She, seems at the beginning little attracted by the young boy, of which she notes the crush, the eagerness, the direct approach, and the somewhat heavy breathing… But the situation seems to amuse her, to entertain her, and the young man’s energy, opens her sympathy and curiosity, in contrast with her more defeatist nature. He believes in the American Dream, she thinks that her future will only be an extension of her present. He thinks big, dreams big, she has her feet on the ground, and a family context (Jewish family) that limits the possibilities of life together. In short, they complement each other and their adventure can begin. Very quickly, we understand – we suspected it because we did not see Joachim Phoenix in the cast – that Paul Thomas Anderson‘s project consists in showing us that the extraordinary, the adventurous, can interfere in everyone’s life, as long as we believe in it, and open our eyes.

2 outstanding young performers

On screen, the two young actors, Alana Haïm and Cooper Hoffman – the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s late favourite actor – are very far from the Hollywood canons. Their exchanges, their comings and goings, the aborted game of seduction, the friendly and unbalanced relationship that develops between them form the narrative project of Licorice Pizza.

The grain of the 70s

Paul Thomas Anderson also has an aesthetic intention, that of rediscovering the grain of the Hollywood of the 70s, and in the color timing, he opts for a format reminiscent of the film of the time. He literally anchors his story in the Los Angeles of the 70s, and the somewhat improbable journey of our two young heroes, their races, allows the viewer to dive with them into a setting not so far from the one that had also captivated Tarantino, whom he tried to tell through Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, even if the projects do not share the same ambition (the second one wants to be a sum, when the first one would be perhaps more a return to the sources).

A revisited romantic comedy

If the overall rhythm, rather slow, can be disconcerting, the narrative development nevertheless includes its share of vivacity. The comparison may seem strange, but Paul Thomas Anderson seems to find here a momentum that carried him in Punch Drunk Love, and that would bring him, at times, closer to the poetic intentions of Carax, then a beginner, who liked to film the crazy race of his hero Alex on Bowie‘s tunes, in Mauvais Sang. We find Bowie in the credits, which gives rise to clipped effects, also a trademark of Paul Thomas Anderson – some speak of directorial virtuosity, we are, for our part, much less dithyrambic, certainly Anderson manages with a certain ease to air his story by integrating clipped techniques, but he is not the only director to have this talent, and his style has not evolved much in nearly 25 years of career since Boogie Nights. However, the ballad with romantic accents that begins to take shape, then gives way to a development closer to Inherent Vice or The Master, with rather epic accents that to a certain extent silences the initial romantic plot before returning to it, is worthwhile for its originality and the associated risk-taking of a director who is not afraid to try an improbable mix.

An affair of family and relatives, Paul Thomas Anderson in intimate mode

Because Paul Thomas Anderson wants to go back to the roots through this film, those of his first films on the one hand, but also inspired by his own childhood. As we said, in the credits, the two stars are young artists who have everything to prove and for whom the crowds are not yet moving. Certainly, Bradley Cooper makes an appearance in an outrageous composition with a mainly comic value (a return to his roots for him too, even if the style of humor is not that of The Hangover), certainly Sean Penn also finds a rather comic role of an old rotting and flirtatious actor, but we are at the antipodes of these previous films where the American director relied on the notoriety of a super star Joachim Phoenix. For Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson preferred to surround himself with a cast close to him. Starting with Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s son, whom he saw grow up from his earliest childhood, and who allows him to pay tribute to his father, and to find some of his magic (the young Cooper’s acting, of course, reminds his father’s). But in the same vein, the cast is committed to recomposing a family. That of the young woman played by Alana Haim first of all in the film is none other than … her own family, and in particular her mother, whom the director had had as a teacher when he was a child. In the family of Licorice Pizza, in addition to Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper that we mentioned earlier, it is also interesting to note that Paul Thomas Anderson addresses a wink by inviting George Di Caprio, Leonardo‘s father, former artistic figure of Los Angeles, to participate in the party.

Notice to enthusiasts

Licorice Pizza has divided us as a whole, much more than the rest of the press, which is on the whole unanimous. It has a certain charm, but for those who are not familiar with the filmmaker, whether it is his first colorful and energetic films or his last more mystical, mysterious ones, the baroque attempt to blur the Hollywood script rules without falling into a perfectly assumed auteurism as well as the slow overall rhythm (the duration) can leave one speechless.

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