With “Licorice Pizza”, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be moving away from his previous films and choosing the path of empathy and simplicity.
The more time passes, the more Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinema becomes lighter. Not that it has become less consistent, but the overhang with which the filmmaker once considered his fictional creatures (in Boogie Nights, Magnolia Where There Will Be Blood) gradually transformed into a form of empathy for its characters, themselves becoming more everyday, more minor, less capital letters.
This is particularly true in Licorice Pizza, the last opus of PTA, whose action takes place in 1973 in the San Fernando Valley, on the edge of Los Angeles. The heroes of this learning novel are two young people, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), and the plot of the film could be summed up, in appearance, in the famous Hollywood narrative principle “boy meets girl”. That’s what it’s all about in the first place, the birth and pursuit of love between two teenagers, like in the good old days of the teen movie triumphant.
A world of nostalgia
From this seemingly almost nothing, Paul Thomas Anderson draws a film with singular charm whose richness is revealed as it is screened. The small world that PTA describes, largely confined to a few streets, turns out, in fact, to be a vast universe that her staging of extreme precision manages to depict like a tapestry of which she would have photographed the smallest details. This world is therefore seen through a microscope but also through a telescope, like a planet that we left long ago but whose streaks of light continue to dazzle us.
Here, the comparison with the Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood of Tarantino necessarily imposes itself. But where Tarantino, as a good formal cinephile, offered a fantastical and sometimes disembodied reinterpretation of the cinema he loves, Paul Thomas Anderson manages to give us back the exquisite, but sometimes bitter taste, of a life that we do not have experienced but whose impression of tasting the slightest flavors. Which gives, from my point of view, an undeniable superiority to the PTA film.
Two new actors to follow
At this point, we must dwell for a moment on the two main performers of Licorice Pizza, so much they are the flesh, the very sap of the film. Two formidable actors emerging before our eyes, whose faces Paul Thomas Anderson films above all with communicative greed. Cooper Hoffman portrays, with a confounding naturalness, an enterprising and braggart teenager, a young actor in the making who, from schemes to brilliance, is in search of a kind of grail. Alana Haim, meanwhile, literally embodies a young woman on her way to independence, while still being very dependent on her traditional Jewish family.
Together, they form the material of a story that becomes more digressive and sinuous as their colorful crossover unrolls its ribbon of memory. A story that swings between a funny picaresque and an underlying melancholy, where we come across colorful characters embodied by stars (Bradley Cooper as a slightly crazy producer or Sean Penn as an avatar of William Holden, described here with a devastating humour) or occasional actors (Benny Safdie as a seductive politician).
Between myth and derision
So many cardboard adults voluntarily relegated to a secondary place that suits them perfectly. These fictional creatures are seen through the eyes of the two teenagers and, through this oblique gaze, they acquire, at the same time, a mythical and derisory dimension which is embodied in a few long, slightly crazy and often disturbing sequences. The myth and the derisory being precisely the two major registers, apparently opposed, on which the story of Licorice Pizza.
less intense than Phantom Threadless unstructured thanInherent Viceless crazy than The Master, Licorice Pizza is undoubtedly the most airy, the most charming and the most trivial of all PTA films. When we leave the room, we don’t know exactly what we saw and we immediately want to go back inside the fabulous bubble of time created from scratch by Paul Thomas Anderson, here more of a magician than demiurge. The sign of a film that is likely to accompany us throughout this perilous year 2022, and more if affinities…
Licorice Pizza by Paul Thomas Anderson in theaters January 5