There are usually two types of critiques of a Paul Thomas Anderson film: The film is either a masterpiece, or it is a masterpiece that you just do not understand.
I tend to be told the latter half by those that swoon over everything P.T. Anderson touches. You see, P.T. Anderson films are inherently great because he made them. got it? And if you don't like one, well, you just MISSED its greatness, because it's all in there.
In other words, if you don't like a P.T. Anderson movie, it's not his fault...you're the problem.
I'm of course being a bit facetious here, as I just tend to become heavily annoyed by "director-worship" of any kind, and P.T. Anderson is top-of-the-charts when it comes to such an affliction. It's by no fault of his own, and it's not to disparage his entire filmography or him personally. I equally love "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood" as two defining, masterful films. I was cold on "Punch-Drunk Love" and downright hated "Inherent Vice." I unabashedly admit that I loved "Magnolia" until the raining frogs began, ruining the movie for me. I wasn't a personal fan of "The Master," but could see how others held it up as brilliant.
This is all preamble for Anderson's latest work, "Licorice Pizza," a coming-of-age adventure set against the backdrop of a tumultuous San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s. Like many of his films, it involves vulnerable characters trying to make sense of their own emotions on-screen. Similar to "Magnolia," "Licorice Pizza" starts off firing on all cylinders before a preposterous rain cloud interrupts the flow...instead of frogs, "Licorice Pizza" starts raining cameos from one distracting star after the other, until the viewer is pummeled with pomp, circumstance and nostalgia.
So no, I was not a fan of "Licorice Pizza," and if it's a great movie like the buzz surrounding the film would suggest, then once again, it's lost on me. By its end, I couldn't care less about a single component of the film and desperately ached for it to come to an end.
And we haven't even gotten to the controversial racism or the gag-inducing romance yet.
Its young stars though are superb. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who has all of the charm and on-screen charisma as his dad) is an ambitious teenage boy who has landed some mid-level acting work. He spots Alana (Alana Haim, of the musical group "Haim" and who is a break-out) taking some school photos and he tries to court her. She's 25 and he's 15, and though she briefly addresses what the glaring problem is (um, he's a minor and this is fully inappropriate), this was the 1970s I guess. Thankfully, the two don't fall IN love with each other from a romantic perspective (despite Gary's attempts), they rather form a lovely friendship based on the feeling of safety that they give to one another.
The mood was right, the tone was pitch-perfect and for the first 30-minutes or so, "Licorice Pizza" was outright delicious. It slowly becomes Haim's movie, with Hoffman relegated to the background or simply there to react to Alana. At about the same time, Sean Penn cameos as a powerful Hollywood player, then next up is Tom Waits as a famous stuntman. Everyone is buzzing about Bradley Cooper, who shows up next as real-life producer Jon Peters and steals his portion of the movie, but in context it feels like a waste. Suddenly, this nice, romanticized memory-rich film fizzles, outshined by the star-power that Anderson weaves into his character's paths. Like the raining frogs, it feels like too much of a jolt to make much narrative sense.
Anderson clearly lives, knows and breathes this time period, as it's immaculately shot and realized from a visual perspective. The soundtrack too, is killer, until it too becomes more of an annoyance. The things that happen to Alana and Gary are almost too-crazy-to-be-true, and are in fact based on things that happened to Hollywood producer Gary Goetzman, a famed figure who worked with Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme.
After being invited into this unique slice of life, "Licorice Pizza" becomes a disjointed stumble down memory-lane...a past that none of us shared or that even feels remotely relatable by the film's final curtain. It's a delicate subject, but the age difference between the two central characters is eyebrow-raising at the least...if the gender's were reversed, we might not make that big a deal out of the 10-year age gap. There are also scenes with comedian John Michael Higgins that are cringe-worthy, as he uses an Asian accent inappropriately, that really don't fit in or have any reason for being.
"Licorice Pizza" goes on for too long, ending up as a jumble of bell-bottoms and nostalgia. Like its title, the ingredients here just don't blend together into anything worth chewing on.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance.
Run Time: 2 hours 13 minutes.
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson ("Inherent Vice," "The Master," "There Will Be Blood," "Magnolia," "Boogie Nights," "Punch-Drunk Love").
"Licorice Pizza" is in theaters on Christmas Day 2021.
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