(SPOILERS) Unlike everyone else, it seems, I didn’t take to the first few Paul Thomas Anderson pictures, particularly those San Fernando Valley, Altman-esque lurching sprawls Boogie Nights and (yeesh!) Magnolia. It was only with There Will Be Blood and a broadening yen for time, place and subject matter that he revealed himself as a filmmaker of merit. This could be why Licorice Pizza, in which he returns to his childhood milieu, left me persuasively unmoved. Or it could also just be the story he chose.
A story that has generated a degree of controversy, understandably so. Fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) falls for 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim); after she spurns him, pointing to their age gap (“I’m not going on a date with you, you’re fifteen. You know I’m 25, right?”), the picture charts their developing relationship as she becomes part of his intrepid career (he’s a child actor and budding entrepreneur, first with waterbeds and then pinball machines). Ultimately, after various partings of ways, they return to each other, this time romantically.
What’s PTA up to here? Is he simply cocking a snoot at convention, daring for a response in the way he is with John Michael Higgins’ imitation-Japanese accent? Is he so enthroned in his ivory castle that he’s oblivious to the issues (unlikely)? Or is he actively engaged in normalising the idea by increments? Age inappropriate relationships are inappropriate, except when they aren’t? After all, Call Me by Your Name, with its vampire/twink love story, was also embraced by the Academy. The arguments presumably being that, since they’re either pro-gay or pro-female empowerment and expression, they should be given a pass such liaisons otherwise wouldn’t.
Determinedly so, since, in both cases, these are seen as wholly positive – not predatory – relationships. Alana’s initial reticence gives way to a confession of love; if you just allow it to, such relationships with minors can blossom for you too! It’s been suggested the feelings are one-sided, but we see throughout, with the mutual jealousies at play, that they clearly are not. Regardless of whether Alana’s confession of love for Gary in the final scene will stick, the point is that PTA is instructing us to celebrate it, just the way they do. And many PTA fans are doing exactly that, because he’s PTA. When the response should be, as Alana tells Gary off the bat, “Don’t be creepy, please”.
It’s thus difficult to identify with PTA’s story when you’re agreeing with the concerns of one of its protagonists over the same: “I think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his fifteen-year-old friends all the time”. Too right. Remove this driving narrative, and PTA’s canvas is left desperately thin, relying on perceived nostalgia for period detail that resolutely fails to disarm. Haim and particularly Hoffman – essaying a character of almost preternatural confidence – give strong performances, but the only resolution one should be rooting for is that Alana wises up and leaves him to his moonage teendream.
Such concerns tend to be compounded by PTA’s terrain. Gary’s at home in the child-actor world, where an accompanying chaperone is de rigueur, but the ease of flouting this (Alana, evidently not an appropriate chaperone) suggests the stories circulating Poltergeist’s young star, or the varying fates of the Coreys. PTA is reserving outright predation for the men found elsewhere in the picture, though, from the photographer who employs Alana, to Sean Penn’s “Jack” Holden (ultimately more fixated on a motorcycle than Alana), to Bradley Cooper’s insaniac Jon Peters (she is set up for more perfunctory exploitation by Benny Safdie’s Joel Wachs, as a makeshift beard). Why, after all this seediness, what could be more innocent than a 25-year-old dating someone a decade younger?
PTA expectedly digs up some decent vignettes along the way, but there’s much fallow ground in between. The scene in which Alana takes Lance (Skyler Gisondo) home to meet the family, and he refuses to speak the Jewish blessing (“I’m an atheist”), is very funny, as is the observational humour with her sisters (Haim’s actual sisters): “You thinker! You think things!” An out-of-nowhere sequence in which Gary is bundled into a police car and taken to the station has the kind of random energy the movie could have used more (“You’re going to jail for murder… Have fun in Attica, dickhead”).
And everything involving Cooper’s Peters is gold (disappointingly, the scene in the trailer where he’s smashing up car windows isn’t present. We have Penn to thank for that, as he pointed out it broke with the subjective lens whereby one of Alana or Gary is always present at any time). Cooper’s clearly having a ball and much more impressive than in Nightmare Alley (could we have ditched the del Toro and had a whole movie of Cooper as Jon Peters?) From the off, he’s versing Gary in saying “Streisand” correctly and declaring “I’m going to kill you and your family, if you fuck up my home”. The escalation is also perfect when, after Gary has sabotaged his waterbed installation, Peters shows up unexpectedly for a lift in their truck (the subsequent backwards, out-of-gas driving is giddy stuff).
Even here, though, there’s the need for an additional note (Gary needed to be that bit visibly intimidated, I feel, to validated his decision: “Let it leak, he said he’s going to kill Greg” referring to his younger brother played by Milo Herschlag).
If this is Licorice Pizza at its best, PTA flounders with other real-life Hollywood types. There’s John C Reilly as Fred Gwynne and Christina Ebersole as, effectively, Lucille Ball. Tom Waits plays Tom Waits as director Rex Blau/Mark Robson. Penn’s Jack/William Holden, star of The Bridges of Toko-San (really Toko-Ri, 1954), but Sean Penn is only ever Sean Penn, however many Oscars he has to say otherwise. As such, dialogue that ought to amuse (“The jungle, That’s where I’m most myself”) falls conspicuously flat. As flat as Cooper’s appearances are absurdly wired. There’s also that, neither here nor there, Penn’s a blithering idiot, as evidenced by his trying to save Ukraine from Vlad. Of course, brave and righteous and indecently pro-jab as he is, it’s been suggested he witness but never showed his mettle regarding activities on a certain indecent island.
With regard to Higgins as Jerry Frick, the hotelier/restaurateur who’s also a serial husband of successive Japanese wives, I’m baffled that PTA thought this would fly. Arrogance, perhaps? A love for Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? PTA defended it as true to life (“My mother-in-law’s Japanese and my father-in-law is white, so seeing people speak English to her with a Japanese accent is something that happens all the time. I don’t think they even know they’re doing it”). Does his father-in-law speak to his mother-in-law with an outrageous Japanese accent all the time, though? If he had an example of the circumstances he depicts actually occurring I’d be “Okay… maybe”. Instead, it seems to be, rather than a reflection of mores of the time, an ill-advised Komedy “bit” predicated on the punchline that Jerry doesn’t even understand Japanese. You’d expect it from a ’70s Britcom. Maybe. At least Rigsby would receive a comeuppance at the end of the episode, if he tried such a thing.
Licorice Pizza has nevertheless been embraced by the awards circuit, if perhaps not quite as pervasively as some of PTA’s past efforts. At three nominations, it comes below Phantom Thread (6) and There Will be Blood (8), and more in line with less-unqualified fare The Master (3), Inherent Vice (2), Magnolia (3) and Boogie Nights (3). Still, that run tells you what an undinted darling of “quality” he is. Or is perceived to be. I was hard-pressed last year to find a nominated picture that halfway deserved the Best Picture Oscar, eventually locating The Father as redeemable. This year’s selection is looking even less formidable.