Paul Thomas Anderson’s most famous films, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, cursed America. But Licorice Pizza lifts the curse with every seemingly spontaneous moment of young adult discovery. This is easily the American eccentric’s best film because his usual indie-movie flaws — obscure themes, cynical perspective, and technical showing-off — are mitigated by a rare, relatable narrative. The 1970s story about California youth on the margins of show business speaks to every American teen’s sense of belonging to a great, bountiful country. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim) don’t exactly know how things work, but their determination to participate in the party makes them soulmates.
Gary pledges love to the slightly older Alana, who is not intimidatingly pretty but quirkily girlish enough for hormonal fascination. In this gender-stressed age, most filmmakers lack the cultural confidence to tell a love story, so Anderson, instead, has made a movie about the beauty of trust. In their wild exploits — pursuing business scams, teasing the entertainment industry and Hollywood icons looming over exurban Encino, and often just running — Gary and Alana scrape against the semblance of love. It satisfies our adolescent desire for camaraderie and acceptance.
Anderson needs a good pop-music soundtrack to pull this off and finds it. The authentic period echoes of “Stumbling In,” “Peace Frog,” and “Life on Mars” are uncanny reminders that such minor tunes were part of the cultural fabric. The background songs give definition to Anderson’s eccentric Americana.
How odd that this fantasy panoply of California/Hollywood life, the other side of America’s eternal gig economy, comes across through Anderson’s lo-fi indie aesthetic. He uses grandiloquent 70mm imagery for everyday frowziness.
Rejecting the visual splendor that Anderson saw in Robert Altman’s outsider/community films (California Split, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women) is just plain perverse. But this wouldn’t be a PTA movie without perversity. In his drive to appear smart, Anderson treats each sequence elliptically: Gary’s run-in with Lucille Ball; his TV-interview effrontery with Art Linkletter; Alana’s encounter with William Holden (Sean Penn), Sam Peckinpah (Tom Waits) figures; her defiant trick on Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and brief venture into political work (Benny Safdie as a local pol). We lean in (as commercial movies rarely require) to infer details of his left-field storytelling.
Anderson’s nearly cinema-destroying impudence contrasts with Tarantino’s fan-boy romanticism in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It compares to American indie music when grunge appeared after the exquisite flowering of ’80s pop — when groups such as The Smiths, ScrittiPolitti, New Order, Kate Bush, even The Cocteau Twins and The Blue Nile, explored savvy new routes of aural beauty. Anderson’s new, ugly aesthetic presumes superiority over the fake-pretty La La Land yet misses the emotional, life-affirming richness that distinguished Shoplifters of the World. In that, director Stephen Kijak absorbed the philosophy of Smiths songs that allowed out-of-step listeners to unite so deeply, then commemorated that historic cultural fact in a sexually sophisticated version of American Graffiti.
Licorice Pizza’s anti-beauty, indie arrogance explains the effrontery of casting Alana Haim, member of the Los Angeles pop trio Haim. (Anderson has directed several music videos for the group, and her two sisters do cameos playing funny, squabbling siblings.) Alana’s lovely, slender figure counteracts her lack of movie-star appeal, and Anderson flaunts his indie-movie defiance when an agent praises Alana’s features: “You have a very Jewish nose. You’re a fighter!” (Not the film’s only Barbra Streisand reference, it rhymes —subliminally — with Gary dressed up to resemble a pudgy Brian Wilson.)
But the deficiency of Anderson’s anti-aesthetic lies in the fact that jolie laide Alana never shows us the meaning of her feelings the way a real actress does — as when Léa Seydoux turns herself ugly in France. Alana’s resilience and resourcefulness, as in the bravura truck-driving sequence, could make her a gauche movie star, representing plain girls everywhere (she’s most likable when she grins). Still, this idea of celebrating the commonplace comes too close to how Anderson used Vicky Krieps as a cruelty fetish in Phantom Thread — it suggests a deliberately affected and unpleasant moral posture.
Despite lively episodes of assorted unresolved interactions, Licorice Pizza’s entertainment value finally gets vague. Gary and Alana return to the undistinguished masses. No great filmmaker wants that — Altman didn’t, neither did Anderson’s other model, Floyd Mutrux, whose marvelous ’70s quotidian narratives (Aloha, Bobby and Rose, Hollywood Knights, and American Hot Wax) endowed his characters with wonder, using all the elements of beauty in a film artist’s arsenal.