What is life without love? I’ll probably be crucified for asking that question. (The taring and feathering are reserved for potentially quoting Haddaway. I digress.) Love should be unconditional, though it isn’t. Paul Thomas Anderson revisits the theme in his latest film, the spectacularly funny Licorice Pizza.
Anderson conceived the Alana Kane role with Alana Haim in mind. Haim’s fierce independence translates into Kane as a woman of independent means; she nails the role, full of confidence bordering on piss and vinegar, but that would leave Gary out to dry.
Their first meeting, as Gary is in line for student photos (I remember those days!), he immediately falls head-over-heels. Even with a gleam in her eyes, perhaps from the attention, Alana dismisses Gary. He fights for her; a commonality exists, allowing them to become friends. Their chemistry allows for a natural resistance to form between them; however, a doozy of an adventure awaits them. As events progress, Gary finds that he needs Alana even more and that she needs Gary.
Gary Valentine is played by Cooper Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film muse (the elder Hoffman starred in five of PTA’s films, the director had discovered him in Scent of a Woman.) Their filmic affair echoes through Cooper’s performance as the enterprising Gary; some of PSH’s nervous energy is inherent in Cooper and Gary, a confident, bordering on cocky 15-year-old.
Alana, both the actress’s and character’s independence is palpable. Even in 1973, the attribute wouldn’t be wholly recognizable and potentially dismissed in the guys-only club of Hollywood. Gary energizes the attribute in Alana to engage with the likes of Jack Holden (Sean Penn), Rex Blau (Tom Waits), Benny Safdie’s Joel Wachs, and, in a hilarious turn as Jon Peters (you should know that name from Keaton’s Batman), Bradley Cooper. If I were a betting man, he would make a run for Best Supporting Actor.
Alana and Gary remain true to themselves. Even though Gary is subjected to the vagaries of Hollywood and Alana is swept up in them, even if they are pastiches (Gary is based on Gary Goetzman), they remain honest to their framework; this is Anderson’s truth. Jack, Joel, and Jon are all caricatures of the actual individuals, while Rex is a fictionalized character. Penn and Waits have more gas than the dry gas pumps that punctuate the story and are the lives of the party. The Barbara Strei-sand joke plays even better in the film than the trailer; Cooper delivers it perfectly, and Gary endures the producer’s eccentricities to deliver a waterbed to his home. Haim learned to drive a truck backward for the film. I appreciated seeing that level of commitment from the actress.
Coincidentally, Gary starts a waterbed company, and Alana sells the pants off anyone else working for a 15-year-old; Anderson’s gift is putting situations together that wouldn’t ordinarily work. Gary is unsuccessful, but I give him credit for trying because he is always in the right place at the right time, the exact ingredient for a love interest to develop.
PTA and Michael Bauman collaborated on the cinematography duties, shooting on 35mm film stock. Silhouettes rue the day and the shadows of night effectively convey the cover under which Gary and Alana must operate. Jonny Greenwood‘s score accentuates the character’s emotions as much as Anderson’s affinity for music does: Nina Simone, Bing Crosby, Sonny & Cher, The Doors, Seals and Crofts. Do you know the taring and feathering I mentioned above? Anderson found the perfect use for Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “If You Could Read My Mind.”
Anderson also touches on specific aspects of romantic relationships. First, the difference in age between Gary and Alana is significant; this might cause theatergoers of today some consternation. I assure you it does not; Gary’s entrepreneurial nature balances nicely with Alana’s independence. The second involves Safdie’s Joel Wachs and his LGBTQ relationship. Even when the story is set, these two touchstones remind us that love has no bounds.
It is ironic, then, that two films would release during the Christmas season, where an age gap exists between two partners (check out Sean Baker’s sublime Red Rocket as Exhibit ‘B.’) Neither movie minds that the gap exists; neither movie cares what we think about the gap; the music sells the emotions. I don’t care about the gap. Love finds us when we least expect it when we stop trying so hard to will it into existence. Through these situations Anderson is, correctly, saying that these elements balance one another out; that even in the convex reflective view of 1973 in 2021, love is still love.
In that respect alone, Paul Thomas Anderson succeeds brilliantly, once again. The rest of Licorice Pizza is groovy.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
R, 133 minutes, MGM/BRON Creative