Licorice Pizza (Review)

To a great extent, Licorice Pizza feels like the film that Paul Thomas Anderson’s style has been building towards. It takes the atypical rom-com focus of Punch-Drunk Love (even pleasantly alluding to that film’s now iconic scenes of Adam Sandler madly sprinting); it has the vibe focus of Inherent Vice; the feel of Boogie Nights is definitely there; and, one scene, where a character talks about how they are responsible for another’s success, brings There Will Be Blood to mind. It also feels in line with Anderson’s deviations from standard narrative form, more in line with The Master and Inherent Vice than Phantom Thread, and more anti-narrative than any of the above.

As an adorer of Paul Thomas Anderson I, unfortunately, have to admit that Licorice Pizza just didn’t quite work for me. It brings together so much that I theoretically love but the end result is something that too often feels listless, purposeless even. It is a freewheeling feeling film, a snapshot of existences told in episodic moments that often don’t even feel like episodes. And, not in a way that wholly satisfied. The film certainly touches on things, it definitively understands its characters and brings them to life. However, it doesn’t really do much with them. Though, the film’s structure is all about character. This is to the extent that my critique is actually potentially unfair: nothing more can be done with these characters because they are only the characters that they are because of what happens in the movie. Every sequence isn’t pushing at a wider narrative, or a conventional arc, every scene is a building block for a believable and compelling human being, one that lives and breathes on screen.

This is impressive. It is a feat and one that I can easily intellectualise. But, even if I can explain my way around the film, that doesn’t make it work. The loose, ever moving chronology is certainly a match for our male lead, Cooper Hoffman’s Gary. He begins the film claiming to be a successful actor (which is somewhat true), despite being fifteen, and spends the entire movie establishing new grafts and schemes. He is constantly moving, always trying to take advantage of something and his energy is the film’s energy. Though, the film is also a match for Alana Haim’s character, also called Alana. She is portrayed as not just not fitting in, but not knowing how to fit in. She surfs on the whims of life, getting pulled into things and repeatedly getting used (as others take advantage of her confusion and lack of concrete direction). Once again, the rhythm of her life is the rhythm of the film. It’s smart filmmaking but it is insular. It creates characters but it doesn’t explore them. The film displays life, and vibrancy, but it doesn’t interrogate it. The polished parts don’t seem to point at anything and from this comes a frictionless experience.

Now, the collage structure of this film does mean you have some wonderful moments. Independent sequences bring real laughs and real beauty. The cinematography is striking, warm and beautiful. It is nicely matched by a well curated soundtrack with multiple needle drops that establish or accentuate an immaculate mood and atmosphere. In some of the sequences, we also get close to a real truth. Alana’s moments bring this most closely; but, then we move on. These clever displays of a vulnerability and how the world is working against her, or others, never become additive. It is a film where things just flow into each other as opposed to add onto each other. A lot of themes are touched upon, but no ideas are explored. Also, a lot of the film’s moments just miss.

At too many points, Licorice Pizza feels like you’re watching the dailies: uncut footage of scenes allowed to linger that are not yet hewn into an actual film. In places, the movie is just a sequence of cameos in which quirky characters take over the screen and then never return. It can get hammy, especially when Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Bradley Cooper are on screen, and even starts to feel a bit riffy. There’s a wacky styling to the dialogue, with these tertiary characters, that starts to grate, in which the film feels far too indulgent. Scenes stretch beyond a purpose and characters just talk. It all feels very in love with itself. Gone is the tight structure of Punch-Drunk Love (my favourite Anderson work). That film was also not particularly a narrative piece, but it didn’t spread itself thinly. The film clasped tightly around its characters and allowed them to shine. Licorice Pizza is the opposite of this.

The real disappointing part, though, (and disappointing is far too light a term) is a repeated instance of racism. Two scenes involve a character doing a racist impersonation of the Japanese language. It is clear in the film that the character is being racist, that they are a racist, but the scene is played for laughs. The punchline is: they are being racist. Which is still just using racism as a punchline in a joke that boils down to… it’s ‘funny’ because racism. Though the film clearly doesn’t endorse the man’s actions, it does display them, and for no reason. These scenes have no wider purpose and even if you can rationalise them as merely showing a racist character, it is still a couple of scenes where we have to sit through some racism which nothing is done with. Both scenes could be cut from the film and the film would be better.

A lot, obviously, has been written about the film’s focus on an age gap. It is a film in which a teen is infatuated by a young adult. Though viewers will be split on this, outside of select moment, the relationship is well handled. It does capture the infatuation of a teenage boy and any returned emotion from Alana is clearly constructed as a want to be loved (or just in a spotlight). She likes that Gary is infatuated with her because she likes being the target of infatuation. This works because we see the dynamic echo out through other characters, where she seeks attention (and affirmation) and is often hurt by this. A better film, though, would make this idea its focus. It would become a film clearly about this specifically gendered dynamic and would leave the audience with more to think about. In this film, it’s just another part that is very well designed (very well realised) but doesn’t come to much, or isn’t really used for anything.

This all being said, there is a lot to like about Licorice Pizza. It is vibe cinema with excellent vibes and fluid filmmaking. It just lacks a real emotional core or a sense of wider purpose. When it just coasts on atmosphere and emotion, it can be really special. But, this being said, in pushing towards this aim it also too frequently becomes aimless, pointless and a bit irritating. There are too many scenes of wacky hijinks and not enough scenes that cohesively build to something. Film doesn’t need to be a narrative medium, it can offer other things. Licorice PIzza is certainly going for something else, it just maybe isn’t serving up a tasty alternative. In the end, you may be too focused on the toppings that are missing to appreciate the unique flavours.

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