Thursday, November 25, 2021

'Licorice Pizza' is sliced thin

   Mostly known as a serious filmmaker, director Paul Thomas Anderson received major early notice for Boogie Nights, his immersion in the porn life. His most recent movie, Phantom Threads, was bracingly astringent. And then, of course, there's There Will Be Blood, no one's idea of a feel-good time at the movies.
    In Licorice Pizza, Anderson eases up, focusing on two characters who don’t often find their way into movies populated by teens. One of these characters is 25, more an emotional adolescent than a literal one.
   Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, portrays Gary, a former child actor who's becoming an obsessive entrepreneur at the age of 15. Alana Haim, a rock musician in her non-screen life, appears as a young woman who’s adrift. 
    Haim's Alana catches Gray's eye at his high school. She's working as a photographer's assistant during a yearbook photoshoot. Alana knows Gary's too young for her but, as the movie develops, the duo forms a tie neither can set aside.
     Neither Hoffman nor Haim is endowed with movie-ready looks or the kind of gleaming smiles found in toothpaste ads. 
    Rail thin, Haim becomes a walking exclamation point, fitting for a young Encino woman who has more attitude than ambition. 
   Set on the fringes of Hollywood, the movie includes encounters with celebrities along the edges of Los Angeles'  celebrity culture. At one point, Alana meets Jack Holden (Sean Penn), a movie star whose ego apparently rides on a singular accomplishment, an action-oriented war movie.
   Holden puts Alana under his spell before trying a daring, alcohol-fueled stunt involving a motorcycle, a golf course, and a barn fire. He's goaded into this foolishness by a wild-eyed movie director (Tom Waits).
   Gary’s entrepreneurial bent finds him cashing in on a trend by opening a waterbed store which achieves a bit of success. During a delivery — one that takes place during a devastating fuel crisis — Gary encounters Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), a hairdresser and producer.
   Looking like Warren Beatty’s understudy in the movie Shampoo, Cooper delivers the movie’s funniest performance. Peters stands as an angry, entitled slice of Hollywood ego.
    The visit to Peters' home also provides an opportunity for Anderson to stage a major set piece involving a delivery truck, reverse gear, and a diminishing supply of gasoline.
   Gary shows flair when it comes to sustaining a hustle. After waterbeds, he creates a pinball parlor. He’s like a Valley-bred Duddy Kravitz, the main character in director Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 adaptation of a Mordecai Richler novel, which I mention partly by way of reminding myself to rewatch that movie soon.
    Gary, by the way, lives with his mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), a low-level PR practitioner who plies her trade for Mikado, a Japanese restaurant run by a white businessman (John Michael Higgins) who speaks to his two successive Japanese wives in an offensively parodic accent. 
   The bit lands like a dropped dish in a quiet room.
    Like many movies about young people, Licorice Pizza's episodic approach can make it feel less than fully realized and only intermittently amusing.
     — Gary travels to New York to help promote a Lucille Ball-like movie called Under One Roof. He takes Alana as a chaperone because he’s underage and his mom is too busy to accompany him. Gary played one of 18 kids in the movie.
    — Alana takes a plunge into volunteerism as a worker for a local mayoral candidate and learns that idealism can disappoint.
    — Gary arranges a meeting between Alana and an agent (Harriet Sansom Harris),  an egregiously insensitive woman who evaluates prospective clients only in so far as they fit  stereotypes. 
   Licorice Pizza, by the way, derives from a chain of record stores popular in the area during the ‘70s. It's a fake-out of a title; no such stores appear in the movie. 
    I’m going on, I guess, so I might as well add an addendum to all of this: Anderson bends a well-worn genre in a movie notable for its idiosyncrasies and for giving Haim a showcase role she memorably inhabits.
    Take note: This is not a memory movie for Anderson, who was born in 1970. Gary reportedly is an avatar for Gary Goetzman, now a producer and co-founder of Tom Hanks's production company.
   Anderson remains an interesting director whose movies  usually merit attention. Licorice Pizza qualifies as a Paul Thomas Anderson movie that (thank goodness) doesn’t feel as if it's intended to be an artistic event.
    But as I watched, I couldn't develop much fondness for this portrait of life in the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s. 
   Maybe the movie is a bit of a waterbed itself; i.e., not as consequential as one might have hoped and, for all its eccentricities, still dedicated to the notion that youth remains endlessly worthy of exploration. 
   Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for more kid’s stuff.

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