Paul Thomas Anderson is in the zone. The zone, in this case, is a cinematic fugue state, where the height of motion pictures is their ability to express, in non-linear time, exacting portraits of slippery memories. Licorice Pizza creates its own space where it might flourish, beautifully alive and necessary, and outside the scope of any other projects being made right now. Cinema is an essential portal into this dream state: no other medium would do. It is only through motion pictures that we can experience stories so vividly drawn and told with such pictorially acute awareness. It’s down to more than just the practical application of what the camera can film, it’s about understanding it as an essential storytelling device, where every part and cog in the machinery of a story must move in perfect, predetermined unison. Licorice Pizza is a magnum opus of cinematic illusion, where everything goes just right, and time and space are suspended, and for one perfect moment, films are as good as they can ever be.
There is an initial hurdle that is presented to the prospective viewer: the film is about a relationship with a significant age gap. There’s no distracting from that, it is the text itself. It’s purpose-driven, because of course it is. Young Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) falls in love with the much older Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the critically beloved band that takes her last name). It’s questionable on the face of it: how might we feel if roles were reversed, some may ask. But it is not inverted Lolita whatsoever, it uses the touchy subject as a launching point to explore teenage crushes with a dizzying, fragmented sense of unreality. The provocative subject is used knowingly to explore something more internal about these characters.
Anderson finds something so essential about his new performers. Cooper Hoffman not only lives up to his father’s reputation as an actor of tremendous merit but earns his own awkward weariness on the screen. Meanwhile, Alana Haim just has the look, something special Anderson has already keyed into when directing her music videos, and he uses her specific features as anchor points for the camera. The feeling is that two stars are born on screen. Either could now have lasting and formidable movie careers, if that’s what they want to do.
It beats selling water beds. That’s what the story is about insofar as there is a story and not just a melding of memories and nostalgia at play. Gary Valentine is a child actor who has taken a new charge as a salesman for a brand called Soggy Bottom (as went the original title for the film, which was perfect). This is a floating plot point, wherein some of the film is about selling beds and trying to take an older woman to bed, but it’s never about that at all. Instead, it is experiential and built into the experience of existing with these characters. It’s a slice of life picture that defies easy categorization, existing by its own merits and own singular definitions.
There is a continuation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work here. California’s San Fernando Valley plays itself, in a prequel to how it plays itself in Boogie Nights (1997), where an unhinged Bradley Cooper could fit exceedingly well in that prior film. There’s the scrambled plotting of Inherent Vice (2014), with none of the less accessible Pynchonian subtext (which has its own merit, but does not pertain to this film). It is shot with the formal classicism of Phantom Thread (2017), every shot is pretty and establishes something, they all speak to a broader context and relationship with the characters. It’s got a bit of everything you come to Paul Thomas Anderson for and is wholly its own thing, a sweet spot between nostalgic service and vividly aware filmmaking that fits into a conversation with his broader body of work.
There is such a deft touch behind the camera. The direction feels shaped exactly around the subjects. Originally shot on 35mm (and touring with blown up 70mm prints in art houses), we float feverishly in an arrested nostalgia for the ’70s. The filmmaking, too, has far more in common with the works of New Hollywood than Anderson’s contemporary filmmakers. It could fit between that great crop of directors, driven by musicality and the option to make their own rules and the experimentation of the French New Wave. It sits comfortably in a history of movies and, by force of nature, will become a classic of our times.
The youthful, propulsive editing is the secret sauce of Licorice Pizza. It’s a work of momentum and insistent forward movement, as editor Andy Jurgensen (an Anderson collaborator on HAIM and Radiohead music videos and on the editing team for Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread) provides tight and tonally paced edits not unlike the aforementioned music videos. It exists within this musical space, its title a reference to vinyl records, and is structured at an airtight audio-visual level, where all these components exist in a perfect marriage.
Nobody ever puts a foot wrong, which is amazing considering just how intentionally disorienting the film is. It doesn’t need to respect the foretold structure of cinematic storytelling. It doesn’t need a cat to be saved. Or a prescribed beginning, middle, or end, although an arc is implicit, just by the development of a relationship, and what happens inside of it. There has already been commentary on perceived issues around representation. There are elements that certain audience members may find uncomfortable, and I look forward to diverse criticism that will more appropriately expand on these areas. From my (admittedly limited) perspective, even the core relationship, which seems questionable in every way, is never framed in such a way that it causes material concern or worry. The film treats everything just right, knowingly, with the craft of an absolute master to back it up.
Licorice Pizza is a success in every measurable way. It’s the perfect hangout film. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson directing as well as he has ever done. When everything is so meticulous, in even in its implicit chaos, it’s a real testament to the level of craft being done. Licorice Pizza is a magnum opus, the kind they used to make, and hopefully, a sign that cinema can go in this direction again. This is the future, it may just take everyone else a while to catch up.