Ever since relinquishing his desire to make self-assertively bravura, high-momentum Masterpiece Cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson has settled into a unique groove within film culture: that of the maturing wonderkid, still drawn to the formal flourishes that made his name, but employing these now to concrete cinematic designs. Those designs are what marks Anderson’s run from There Will Be Blood (2007) to Phantom Thread (2017) as one of the great career trajectories in contemporary American cinema; but what makes the needling, obsessive, morally and politically conservative films of his younger years—Hard Eight (1996) to Punch-Drunk Love (2002)—interesting is that the later films are only possible because of what was gleaned from these aesthetic failures, exercises in panache above all else. Only someone who has learned to temper those instincts towards Greatness (a risible aim in the first place) could have made Licorice Pizza.
If that sounds like a back-handed compliment, I suppose in part because it is. In Anderson’s newest, set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, he stages an anti-romance within an anti-coming-of-age film. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is a young actor blessed with the gift of the gab and an immutable self-confidence; Alana (Alana Haim) is in the rut of her mid-20s, working for a company that takes photographs for school yearbooks. She meets Gary while he queues, and something about his attention grabs hers—his attempts to charm are transparent, but there’s a certainty, an assurance to his sentences that’s unusual. A series of smooth tracking shots later, and Gary’s picture has been taken, and he’s already made the case for meeting him later for dinner. As he exits, Alana walks back towards her work, not before her boss slaps her arse as she passes. Anderson undercuts the questionable sweetness of the scene like this for two reasons: it highlights the ambient misogyny of the period right away, which will later be re-emphasised and joined by its racism, homophobia, and state violence; and it plays up the problem posed by the age differential between Alana and Gary. Alana becomes Gary’s chaperone, first escorting him to acting gigs and later assisting in his business ventures, including stints as a waterbed salesman and the manager of a pinball joint (“Fat Bernie’s Pinball Palace”); it’s during this time Alana realises a desire to become an actor, and when that doesn’t work out, a political actor: the oil crisis of ’73 spurs her newfound idealistic fervour into a role for Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), a mayoral candidate.
Across its runtime, Licorice Pizza creates a sense of propulsion through its camera movement, its editing structure, and its rich, though possibly overstuffed soundtrack. Working in tandem, the film starts to privilege both the banal and the momentous: The criss-crossing of Alana and Gary’s paths, the chances history commissions and the chances it denies, and their final collision outside a cinema (!) playing Live and Let Die (1973); Alana smoking with her sister at dusk; Gary’s sudden arrest on mistaken grounds; and all of the scenes of Gary and his friends, friends who are heroically invested in his every scheme and gambit, on the payroll for pennies and an evening’s hijinks in pals’ company. The film’s structure is a repudiation of the rush and spin of Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), with their enormous casts and multiple narrative axes. Instead, Licorice Pizza eases into its transitions between incidents and anecdotes, creating intuitive rather than forced connections between the film’s discrete parts; its delight in digression bears the influence of Vincente Minnelli and Jonathan Demme. An especially good hand-off is the lap dissolve that moves from Alana throwing herself down on her bed after a bikini-glad, stoned and mortified evening at the waterbed shop to her audition for “Jack” Holden (Sean Penn).
Before that audition, Alana and Gary visit a talent agent, Mary (Harriet Sansom Harris—Barbara Rose!). This scene is instructive in more than one way. Alana, advised to lie to increase her chances of landing a part, admits to a raft of skills she does not possess. Perhaps seeing through Alana, perhaps not, Mary nods and laughs, makes insinuations about her features, and takes a phone call. All of this Harris handles while Anderson frames her face in smothering close-up, her every gesture magnified, such as her rabbit-like twitching nose and lips, or the way she isolates every syllable in her admonition that actors should be willing to do nudity in their roles. She scrutinises Alana as the camera scrutinises Harris’s performance, which, as in her inspired turn in Phantom Thread, fairly courses with strangeness. Anderson is a superb director of actors, and there’s no accident in the design of this scene: Harris, a memorable bit part player, is instructing these two newcomers (both within their roles and as new actors themselves) in the PTA school of screen performances. The advice is implicit but clear: make it weird.
Because of its setting, Licorice Pizza teems with such film industry run-ins, but the picture of Hollywood that emerges is less than salutary. Most of the vignettes expose something rotten in the state of tinseltown. Meetings with barely-veiled figures from cinema’s history and with straight depictions often take dark turns, such as when the Lucille Ball stand-in slaps Gary for straying from script, when the William Holden figure incoherently flirts with Alana after their audition, or when Jon Peters aggressively propositions her. But within each of these confrontations, Anderson tries to recuperate something. In the Ball scene, it’s the amazing shot of the troupe (Gary among their number) performing, Anderson’s camera squeezing between the two television cameras to its either side, approximating televisuality but staying apart from it due to its beautifully choreographed craning. In the Holden segment, it’s the meeting of Alana and Gary’s eyelines across the room, the enmity and jealousy conveyed in their gazes. And in the Peters detour, where Gary and company install a waterbed for Peters’s partner Barbara Streisand, it’s the wonderful scene in which their truck stalls, and Alana manoeuvres the heavy vehicle backwards through Valley’s winding roads—each cut to Haim’s steely eyes in the wing mirror ratchets up the tension to an exhilarating degree.
Each of these scenes, and the film’s shape as a whole, is subject to a relentless movie logic. Most of the time Anderson succeeds in suppressing disbelief, or wards off the possible spectre of cringe, but not all the time. A quick montage near the film’s end of Alana and Gary running in the other’s direction is a bit too much. But this is forgivable when the size of Anderson’s project becomes clear. Six out of Anderson’s nine features to date have been set in the past—barring Phantom Thread, all feature American locales. Unlike David Fincher, whose evocation of 1930s Hollywood in Mank is simply a hidden portrait of the present, or Quentin Tarantino, whose recent films indulge in his reactionary moral fantasies of alternative pasts, Anderson’s cinematic encounter with history is a substantive, fulfilling artistic mission. Hollywood juts into the characters’ lives just as the Valley geographically juts into Hollywood. Take the moment in which Wachs’s position becomes clear: he has invited Alana, a newish recruit to his office, for a drink outside of working hours; she arrives and finds him at a table with Matthew (Joseph Cross). Alana is framed in the mirror, Matthew is in profile, Wachs is excluded from the frame. In moments Matthew’s desperation announces itself: Wachs isn’t committed to their relationship, his career and its dependent assimilation into normative society take precedent. In a pair of very tight close-ups, this private drama becomes public through Alana as an avatar for the viewer. Cross’s downturned, exasperated face contradicts the expression on Safdie’s, a forced attempt at calmness, a smile that feigns indifference. Wachs isn’t an invention: he’s a Democrat, three-time mayoral candidate, and he came out as a gay man in 1999. This is but one instance of Anderson’s flair for thinking through the past on screen, for animating the concerns of local history and establishing it in the domain of the cinema.
Here’s another: it’s the height of the oil crisis (which Gary understands negligibly), the petrol stations are stagnant, a long line of cars snakes out along the street. Gary (on foot) and his brother (riding his bike) bob and weave between the stationary vehicles, as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” blasts on the soundtrack. Their locomotive ability mocks the drivers, many of them bored or bellicose, as does the camera’s, which in steady tracking shot glides along the concrete. Despite the fact that the oil embargo will sink his waterbed business, Gary’s delight is expressed in the movement of the camera, and as they race past the station and its reprimanding sign (advising motorists to buy bikes), a certain youthful solipsism in the face of wider historical circumstance is fixed into the shot’s—and the film’s—meaning. Gary’s teenage self-centredness resembles the quality I dislike in Anderson’s early films, those decisions made only for one’s-own-trumpet-blowing ends; but there’s a grace note here. An argument Gary and Alana have about “coolness” may seem pathetic, but Gary’s belief in his own agency is neatly mirrored in Alana’s sudden acquisition of political principle, as if serving on a mayoral campaign will fix all of those things beyond the reach of the powerless. It may be illusory, but in an American film culture defined by the corporate capture of history and its repackaging as nostalgia, cynicism and defeatism, it’s more than heartening to see a filmmaker look into the past and come back to the present with a kernel of optimism.