That Summer Feeling
By Christina Newland
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., United Artists
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature film, and his third set in California in the 1970s, takes its title from a fabled record store, based in SoCal during the same period. Here, Anderson’s latest sets out to evoke the as-of-late fashionable vibes of 1973; denim jackets, the reek of patchouli, Laurel Canyon tunes, passenger-seat leather sticking to your thighs in the summer heat. It’s a given that vinyl evokes nostalgia, and Licorice Pizza’s soundtrack features all the requisite period-correct McCartney and Bowie needle-drops. But it contains no depictions of record stores or even records as such. (Its working title was the far less appealing “Soggy Bottom,” in reference to the ill-advised name of the waterbed company in the story.) The thing about a record is that when it’s serving its purpose it’s perpetually in motion; so too is Licorice Pizza.
The film centers around 15-year-old Gary Valentine, played by Cooper Hoffman, whose chubby face looks oddly adult, perhaps because of his striking resemblance to his father Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gary’s a child actor who has grown a little too old and awkward to continue picking up work in the perma-tanned, David Cassidy–obsessed ’70s. He meets the long-legged, birdlike Alana (Alana Haim) on school picture day; she’s unhappily employed by the photography company. Gary wastes no time in making transparent but entertaining overtures to date the 25-year-old. The pair embark on a hot-cold friendship that is laced with both of their insecurities and a long-standing crush that seems to pinball between them with variable intensity. They eventually decide to go into business together in the next California gold rush: selling waterbeds. Mattresses, after all, are for squares.
If Anderson is returning to a familiar milieu, this is nothing like Boogie Nights, that three-act tragicomedy about the sparkle and grime of the golden age of porn. Nor is it much like Inherent Vice, his Pynchon adaptation set in 1970, a wonderful oddity that borrows much from the longueurs, enigmas, and deadpan humor of a film like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Licorice Pizza is neither as traditionally structured as the former nor as wobbly and far out as the latter; it’s digressive, minor-key, and often hilarious. It features eccentric cameos and characters introduced late into its running time, a revolving door of scenarios and set pieces rather than any clean narrative progression. At one point, police crash into the frame and yank our protagonist out of it abruptly. Its young characters are often adrift and restless. It almost feels as if Licorice Pizza were written as a string of vignettes, and retroactively built up from there en route to a surprisingly poetic conclusion.
A controversy around the ten-year age difference between the central pair exploded online with surprising force, with some claiming the film condoned grooming children. But those who carp about age gaps in relation to this film have very little grasp of the human heart. The pair perpetually deflate each other’s more florid fantasies of self: Gary’s attempts at fast-tracking his way to adulthood and Alana’s bristling deflection of it are two sides of the same coin. In their own way, they’re helping each other grow up. Alana’s immaturity is never more apparent than when she is angry with Gary for his immaturity. Gary and Alana are often seen in reflection, together or separately, through windows, glass doors, or mirrors. It happens at a DJ booth, or near a police station, and it can’t help but feel visually indicative of their odd-couple alikeness, their reverse-reflections of one another.
Licorice Pizza conveys summertime dreaminess with very little of the lassitude that usually comes with it. Sun-drenched teen suburbia never moved so fast; everyone is always running toward or away from something, whether cops, coke-crusted movie producers, restaurants, or pinball palaces. From Encino to Sherman Oaks (where the two protagonists live, respectively) to various locations around the Valley, Alana and Gary are falling off motorcycles, maneuvering backwards down the Hollywood Hills in a moving truck, scrambling over sidewalks, pushing people out of the way in a hurry to be somewhere.
Anderson replicates his characters’ constant movement formally, his camera always roaming and tracking down hallways and streets, looping through a “Teen-Age Fair” where Gary hocks his waterbeds, moving fluidly over its geography of pinball machines and Sonny & Cher cutouts. This movement, both literally and stylistically, has its own corresponding point: these characters all seem determined to get somewhere fast.
This could be taken as a surface-level joke about showbiz. The notable cameos—Sean Penn as a craggy-faced, martini-pickled film star à la William Holden; an unhinged Bradley Cooper as megalomaniac producer Jon Peters—provide a heady glimpse into macho Hollywood, and how living on its fringes and on its scraps is less than desirable. (If old-guard Holden is dispiriting to be around, new-guard Peters is actively scary).
Anderson’s focus on Gary—a child actor who no longer looks much like a child and who yearns for the excitement he once had a brief taste of—is also a poignant look at the optimism of adolescence. When Gary first invites Alana out, he begins with the unbearably pompous line: “So, Alana. What are your plans?”
Gary and Alana both take a shot at auditioning for screen roles before turning to various business hustles. She whines to her father that her almost-boyfriend, actor Lance (Skyler Gisondo), was “going to take me away from here!” Everyone’s trying to get out, up, and away. And they’re pretty good at it, too. Maybe better than the "grown-ups." Gary and his kid brother zip down the sidewalk past lines of traffic during the OPEC oil crisis, finally gaining an upper hand on the empty-tanked drivers. And Alana and Gary run and run all over, until finally they run right into each other.
The word that regularly comes up in descriptions of Licorice Pizza is “nostalgic,” an easy shorthand for the film’s retro look, its period authenticity, its gorgeously textured production design. And it’s not totally wrong: the film often gives the impression of personal remembrance. But it isn’t exactly that, since it’s mostly fictional, and Anderson was born in 1970. The tone is warm, honeyed, vaguely goofy in the manner of your parents’ awkward prom pictures. But “nostalgia” is also a loaded word. It’s seductive, sometimes insidious. As a collective or generational impulse, it can embrace retrograde politics. Yet if you pay attention, there are fissures in this vision of unformed romance in the all-American endless summer.
Anderson tries to dispense with the veneer of glamour. There are ugly sofas and corded phones in the kitchen, acne-dotted skin and imperfect teeth, the provincial tragedy of Alana Haim saying she “doesn’t really know” what Japanese food is. The film hints at sexism and racism, even if it only sometimes lands those efforts. John Michael Higgins is a Japanese restaurant proprietor, married to Mioko (Yumi Mizui). He later swaps her for a younger woman. Both speak little to no English, and he speaks to them in an obnoxious Japanese accent. The joke may not be aimed at Mioko, but rather at the stupidity of this clueless white man’s racism. But it still falls flat. Licorice Pizza says that its era is fun when it is burnished by memories of youthful freedom—but hints that it’s not so much fun to actually inhabit. Yet the scenes are jarringly unfunny, and there’s not much there to engage with beyond the obvious.
The limits of nostalgia are better evidenced by the treatment of Haim’s character. Her lived-in performance speaks volumes; she has the quality of a scruffy screwball heroine with a vocabulary that no bar of Dove soap has ever been a match for. (Her line delivery of “Fuck off, teenagers,” as she sprints out of the “Teen-Age Fair” and after Gary is one for the ages.) Through her firecracker temperament and barely hidden vulnerability, we can see the symptoms of her era bearing down on her. People are constantly telling her who she is. “You’re a goddamn fuckin’ fighter,” a talent agent (the unforgettably crazed Harriet Sansom Harris barks at her. “You’re such a delicate creature,” Sean Penn’s famous old actor says: a completely inaccurate statement that makes it obvious he isn’t really seeing her at all. Is this a symptom of the Californian “be somebody” syndrome? Of the sexism of its time? Nobody is so eager to tell Gary who he is, even though he’s much younger. No wonder Alana is confused.
Licorice Pizza takes an arm’s-length embrace of nostalgia. Anderson doesn’t turn a blind eye to reality—he heightens it, weighting it with meaning, reflecting the romance of hindsight and adolescent abandon. It’s not particularly likely that either Gary or Alana will have careers in showbiz. And who knows whether they will have any chance at a lasting relationship. Maybe their love for one another is as fleeting as a summer romance, to be remembered with both affection and minor dismay years later. Goofy, embarrassing, imperfect, problematic. And lovely.