Licorice Pizza seems like a film tailor-made for me. It’s the kind of movie that cares more about letting the audience hang out with its characters than crafting an intricate, moving narrative. When you have films as terrific as Dazed and Confused and Boogie Nights fitting that bill, it’s hard not to be excited. And like those films, it’s a period piece that takes advantage of the fact that the 1970s is arguably the greatest decade for popular music. Lastly, it has the fingerprints of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, who seemed to be incapable of doing wrong. At least that’s what I thought before seeing Licorice Pizza, anyway. To put it mildly, Anderson’s latest is a crystal clear demonstration of his fallibility.
That’s not to say the film fails at creating a strong aesthetic. From the opening scene, Anderson – who shares cinematographer duties with Michael Bauman – bathes the characters and locations with a distinct warm hue. Combine that with shooting it on film and you have a visual style that instills a sense of nostalgia. The comforting vibe doesn’t stop there either, as it fills itself with a cozy period-accurate soundtrack. So any time it slows down for atmospheric purposes – which happens quite often – the movie achieves a bit of loveliness.
But here’s the thing: Licorice Pizza slows down so much that it fails to be an effective character piece. It does not matter if your hangout movie has either a massive ensemble or a small set of characters. As long as those characters are engaging, it’s all smooth sailing. But for whatever reason, Anderson struggles to provide that. On one end, you have Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a woman who seems to be comfortable with not living an eventful life. On the other end, you have Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a teenager who already has a career in acting. You would think that their background and eventual pairing would spark something of interest. Alas, the movie takes its sweet time for interest to arrive.
To its credit, it gives Alana and Gary compelling things to do by the halfway point. Specifically, they find themselves working alongside each other as they try to sell waterbeds. Somewhere in the midst of that, they attempt to find success in other avenues. In the case of Gary, he seeks to become a full-time businessperson. In the case of Alana, she juggles between becoming an actor herself and working behind the scenes for a mayoral campaign. And with Gary being so much younger than Alana, he cannot help but try to be more intimate with her. Still, that leaves us with an opening 45 minutes that are somehow busy and unproductive at the same time.
Considering the minimal forward momentum, it’s no surprise that a movie like Licorice Pizza adopts an episodic structure. From Alana and Gary’s time selling water beds to Alana’s time assisting in the mayoral campaign, each section feels like its own story. A fine decision on paper, to be sure! But the film makes the mistake of dwelling on details that don’t develop either Alana or Gary. This is most apparent in the extended sequence with Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), who steals the movie so much that Alana and Gary barely register. It’s one thing to introduce a character so unhinged it’s hard not to look away from them. But when you spend a good minute on things like his preferred pronunciation of “Barbara Streisand”, it just feels like time wasted.
Speaking of time wasted, Anderson puts a lot of effort into comedy that withers the longer it lasts. A decent portion of the humor stems from belabored responses, which can be amusing at the best of times. The scene where Alana lies about her skills during a meeting is a strong example of this. With the help of restrained cuts from editor Andy Jurgensen, her endless droning becomes a gag in and of itself. But even here, the film indulges too much in the deliberate pacing. By the time it stretches the unfortunate gag of “speaking broken English to an Asian person”, it’s hard not to wonder if Anderson’s approach to comedy was the wrong one all along.
I suspect most people coming out of Licorice Pizza will hang onto at least one notable story element. For some, it will be the discomforting ten-year age gap between Alana and Gary. For others, it will be the characters’ desire to find their place in the world. It’s just a shame that I came out of this struggling to engage with any of it. By all means does it have the blessing of cinematographers, music supervisors, and actors who know what they’re doing. Even a first-time actor like Haim holds her own as a woman who is less mature than she appears to be. But strong effort is all for naught when it’s not on solid ground, and it looks like Licorice Pizza is only good at providing the namesake of its waterbeds: a soggy bottom. – Mark Tan
Licorice Pizza will release in theaters everywhere on December 25, 2021.
The film stars Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, and Benny Safdie.