Licorice Pizza: Paul Thomas Anderson Triumphs Despite Queasy Ingredients

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Is the relationship sure to raise difficult questions? That may be what Anderson is getting at. Despite the bright, sunny veneer of Licorice Pizza–which is impeccably shot by Michael Bauman and Anderson himself, and designed by Florencia Martin, who’s all but has guaranteed herself another Oscar–there is an undercurrent of darkness here. Gas prices are climbing; Watergate is unfolding; racism is still casual, as personified by a local restaurant owner (John Michael Higgins) and his distasteful manner of acquiring and addressing young Japanese brides.

And while the relationship between Alana and Gary is on the surface largely sweet, there is an underlying, uncomfortable sexual tension that can’t be discounted. As some have already pointed out in the press, there would be a louder outcry if the ages were reversed and it was the more cliché older man/younger girl dynamic. Alana is seen as having somewhat more perspective and control over the situation, even as she embarks on one adventure after another with the clearly horny Gary. One’s mileage may vary while watching the film: the relationship may come across as simply too creepy. But if you’ve crushed on a person older than yourself who was still somehow in your orbit, you may buy into it.

Anderson–as with just about every film he’s made–is neither judging nor condoning his characters’ behavior, which is where some of the criticism of his choices may come from. This is a “slice of life” film in which life and relationships are messy and not always appropriate, and he’s not there to condemn or excuse. Think of the era itself: This was a time when Ringo Starr had a #1 hit in 1974 with a cover of “You’re Sixteen” (which also reached #8 back in 1960 as performed by Johnny Burnette). Rod Stewart was just four years away from having a Top 30 hit about a 17-year-old with “Hot Legs.” And, of course, Woody Allen’s Manhattan would arrive in theaters to much acclaim in the same decade. All of these are rightfully seen now as wildly inappropriate, but not during their often amoral decade.

What’s remarkable in some ways about Alana and Gary is how generally innocent their relationship stays, even as they flirt, bicker, and make each other jealous. There are certainly older men to take on the sleazy mantle on-screen, from Sean Penn’s dissolute actor Jack Holden (supposedly based on William Holden) to Bradley Cooper’s insane, drug-addled hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters (based on, yes, Jon Peters). Both their scenes are filled with a dread that slowly seeps into the film: Penn is more low-key while Cooper is frantic, over-the-top, and arguably saps the energy out of the latter third of the film after he exits (his scene is also capped with a harrowing drive down a steep, winding Hollywood Hills road that leaves one gripping the arms of the theater seat).

There are plenty of encounters with the troubles and contradictions of real life throughout Licorice Pizza’s shaggy, sometimes superfluous 133-minute running time, not to mention a host of surprising cameos that add a show-bizzy flavor to the proceedings. Anderson’s juxtaposition of them against the appeal, honesty, and good-naturedness of his two complicated leads (and the, it needs to be said again, brilliant young actors who inhabit them) creates a compelling tension that carries the film through most of its length. Licorice Pizza, Anderson’s most humane effort in years, is a story of two souls finding their way to each other whether they and the world like it or not, and it’s up to you to decide whether you’re okay with that.

Licorice Pizza opens in limited release this Friday, Nov. 26.

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