Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, ‘Licorice Pizza,’ revolves around the sweet and confused relationship between two lovers with a big age gap, but seems more about a particular place at a particular time in history, both from the director’s very own teenage. A romantic-comedy-drama film, set in the San Fernando Valley, California, in the 1970s, it is able to recreate the era with accurate precision. With the director’s usual style of direction intact, “Licorice Pizza” is an interesting film to watch and experience.
While standing in the queue for his high school picture day, sometime in 1973, fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine takes a fancy to Alana Kane, one of the members of the team that is organizing the photo session. Gary, who has worked as a child actor in films, is a smooth talker, and he asks Alana out for dinner, despite her being ten years older than him. Although Alana is initially very skeptical about it, she ends up going on a date where Gary tells her about a public relations company that he owns and runs along with his mother. Soon, Alana accompanies Gary to New York as his chaperone on a film’s promotional tour. While Gary wants to strike up a romantic relationship with Alana, the latter keeps seeing him more as a friend, and instead grows attracted to Lance, a friend and co-star of Gary’s.
Meanwhile, Gary has a fallout with the director for cracking a joke on stage and returns to the San Fernando Valley to look for work in advertisements. Soon, he sees Alana and Lance together, and although he wants to reach out to Alana at first, he decides to stay away. Alana’s religious family invites Lance for dinner, but when her conservative Jewish father learns of Lance’s beliefs and thoughts as an atheist instead of a Jew, there is a fallout between the two, which results in a breakup. A few days later, while walking down the street, Gary sees a waterbed in one of the stores, and decides to start a business selling waterbeds. With a group of friends and his younger brother, he drives down to a teenage expo with the hope of selling these waterbeds. Here he meets Alana once again, and is soon arrested by the police, who drag him down to the station. Alana tries to protect him and even follows the cars back to the police station, but when Gary is released (since he was mistaken to be someone else), the two reunite and seem to grow closer. Back in San Fernando, they open a shop selling waterbeds, which is getting more popular by the day. In the meantime, Gary takes Alana to some agents to help her pursue her interest in acting as well. Then suddenly, an oil crisis hits the United States, forcing Gary to shut down his waterbed business.
Licorice Pizza’s greatest strength is in its ability to recreate the time and place that it is talking about. Visually, colorful glow-light signs and vinyl records abound, along with the sounds and music that were a part of contemporary popular culture. The characters, who are undoubtedly the backbone of the narrative, are also made and molded in accordance to the time that they live in. Jack Holden (played by Sean Penn), a veteran actor obsessed with motorbikes, heart-racing action sequences, the dialogues and characters of his films, and himself is one such character. And so is Jon Peters (played by Bradley Cooper), who is a maniacal film producer obsessed with his fancy lifestyle and the social power he believes he holds. The two protagonists, Gary and Alana, are more driven by their individual ages and are both too hopeful to some extent. Gary refuses to live with failed ventures in life. No matter how young he is, he keeps jumping from one idea to another, from waterbeds to pinball machines. On the other hand, Alana cannot seem to get over her age, and she is always trying to find her profession, to the point of calling herself a politician after volunteering for an election campaign. The film also presents the time’s inappropriateness, particularly with regard to casual racism and sexism, but mostly through comedy.
Almost all of ‘Licorice Pizza’s narrative elements are based on actualities—the restaurant opened by Jerry Frick was indeed the first Japanese restaurant in San Fernando, the Teenage fair at Hollywood Palladium that Gary goes to was an actual yearly event, the characters of Jack Holden and Jon Peters are based on a real actor and producer of the time, and so on, to the point that the film is titled based on a record chain store by the name “Licorice Pizza” that was popular in California in the ’70s. This film is undoubtedly a very personal work by Anderson. It is based a lot on local history and memory, and that at times works against it. To those unaware of the minute details of the place and times (audiences outside the USA), the film seems a bit stretched, and does not quite provide the same excitement as ‘Magnolia’ or ‘Boogie Nights.’ Overall, ‘Licorice Pizza’ is an interesting watch, particularly for those who enjoy the romance genre.