The funniest moment in any Paul Thomas Anderson movie comes in The Master, when cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks his acolyte Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) to pick a point in the distance and ride toward it on a motorcycle. Ever literal-minded, Freddie sets his sights on the horizon and just keeps driving, eventually out of sight and beyond his mentor’s reach. It’s an act of spiritual emancipation that Anderson’s filmmaking transforms into a sublime sight gag. Like the hijacked chopper, Freddie’s a machine with plenty of horsepower and a lightning-quick accelerator: If you start him up, he’ll never stop.
There are plenty of such unbounded sensations in Anderson’s movies; characters cruising across the widescreen frame. Think of Philip Baker Hall patrolling the casino floor in Hard Eight, or Adam Sandler’s desperate sprints through darkened streets in Punch-Drunk Love. Or: Daniel Day-Lewis staggering implacably down the expanse of a basement bowling alley in There Will Be Blood, or speeding through the night in his sports car in Phantom Thread. To paraphrase Magnolia’s musical narrator Aimee Mann, at its best, Anderson’s cinema is all for the sake of momentum. PTA’s new coming-of-age comedy Licorice Pizza features a tracking shot that ranks with any of these highlights: Surveying the chaos around his local gas station—it’s 1973 and the OPEC crisis is in full swing—15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) barrels past the stalled cars crowing about the end of the world as he knows it. He feels fine, and why wouldn’t he? After all, it’s not like he can drive—and as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” crescendos in sync with Gary’s strides beneath sunburnt skies, his jog becomes a rapturous vision of mobility amid gridlock, the only guy in sight who isn’t running on empty.
Movement is the organizing principle of Licorice Pizza. Characters are always in a hurry to get somewhere, even when they’re traveling backward. In the spirit of its ’70s setting and aesthetics, the movie climaxes with a set piece involving a U-Haul truck being piloted in reverse down winding, perilous Hollywood Hills streets. The driver is Gary’s 20-something friend-slash-chaperone-slash-no.-1-crush Alana (Alana Haim), who’s got a firm hand and wild eyes; the chaotic vehicular choreography at once parodies and honors period car chases in comedies like The Sugarland Express or Smokey and the Bandit. Because Licorice Pizza is set in the shadow of Hollywood—specifically in the industry hive of Studio City in the southeast San Fernando Valley, long since mythologized as Anderson’s childhood stomping grounds—it’s hard not to conjure up cinematic reference points to contextualize its drifty narrative about the exposed nerves, hot flashes, and crossed wires of young(ish) love. For reasons too convoluted to get into here, Gary and Alana’s nerve-racking joyride includes an extended and menacing cameo from the legendary (and legendarily obnoxious) movie producer Jon Peters, impersonated with kamikaze aplomb by a well-cast and zero-fucks-given Bradley Cooper.
No less than all that frenetic running—through playgrounds, shopping malls, police stations, and golf courses—the numerous dream-factory allusions of Licorice Pizza place it squarely in PTA’s comfort zone. Anderson wasn’t a child star like Gary, who as the film opens is promoting a broad family comedy modeled on the 1968 Lucille Ball vehicle Yours, Mine and Ours—a nod to the early career experiences of the director’s friend, film producer Gary Goetzman. (“I can’t remember at this point if I’m trying to pretend that it’s not Gary’s story,” Anderson told Variety, “but fuck it, it’s him.”) But like Goetzman, Anderson grew up in close proximity to showbiz types, and the same sense of striving anxiety and status-seeking that bristled beneath the surfaces of Boogie Nights and Magnolia is in play here.
With this in mind, there are times when Licorice Pizza almost feels like a highlight reel of PTA’s greatest tropes and moments—a victory lap around home turf. The dateline places it chronologically between Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights, which is also a pretty good description of its tone: warm, nostalgic, and only faintly paranoid (Cooper’s nervy, obnoxious performance recalls Alfred Molina’s coked-out millionaire in Boogie Nights, minus the sense of lethal threat). With its sweaty, hothouse color palette and sculptural use of natural California light and haze (the cinematography is credited to Anderson and Michael Bauman), it feels as if the breathtaking, tactile flashback in Inherent Vice when Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston make out in the rain to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” has been extended to two hours. And after the masterful but claustrophobic chamber drama of Phantom Thread, the loose, playful vibe suggests a filmmaker enjoying being able to make work fully on his own terms.
In the press rollout for Licorice Pizza, Anderson has made it clear that those terms are very personal, and the contrasts between his film with a similarly themed blockbuster like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood are palpable. Any movie stars on hand here are in the margins; the leads are both first-timers carrying baggage from their own surnames. Hoffman and Haim are both family friends: The latter’s mother was Anderson’s childhood art teacher, which turned out to be the detail that cemented Anderson’s professional and personal relationship with her sisters and their band. The production was shot under a veil of COVID-era secrecy. At the same time, there’s something open-hearted about the feeling that the filmmaker is circling the wagons and working close to home. “When I came to visit the set, and learned that all his kids were in the movie, and that you would be in it, it felt like he’d decided to say, ‘Fuck it, this is the truth about me,’” said John C. Reilly in a recent interview with Alana Haim, referring to Anderson’s long-held preference to be “the mysterious wizard behind the curtain,” which was the satirical subject of Phantom Thread.
Because we’re in a moment when movies are treated like scorecards for moral inventory, Licorice Pizza’s rollout has been dogged by social media skirmishes over the problematic aspects of its central love story—concerns that Anderson has paid lip service in interviews. “Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his loser friends?” Alana asks one of her peers, and while an answer isn’t forthcoming, it also isn’t really required. Of course it’s weird that Alana, who’s a decade beyond high school and staring down her 30th birthday, is playing Wendy to a tribe of lost teenage boys, and the film’s repeated visualizations of characters—especially Alana—hurtling hellbent in one direction or another belie communal anxieties about which way they’re all headed.
What attracts Alana to Gary is the swaggering contradiction of a kid who makes a living playing prepubescents on television while projecting a swinging-bachelor vibe well beyond his years off screen. (“Two Cokes, please,” he lobbies a bartender at the Tail o’ the Cock, like Bart Simpson ordering three fingers of milk from his mom.) She can’t tell whether he’s ridiculous or charming, but the confusion is more interesting than anything else going on in her life, and gradually, her curiosity metastasizes into a fierce, ambivalent devotion with quasi-incestuous subtext. (“Don’t you dare get into that car,” she chides him at one point, sounding distressingly like his mother.) Gary, meanwhile, is crushing on Alana because, on a purely abstract level, she represents a sort of holy grail—a lanky, experienced older woman whose inaccessibility offers the thrill of the chase. And yet she’s not necessarily out of his grasp; in a wonderful sequence involving a silent late-night phone call in which neither party wants to speak first, it’s clear they’re on the same wavelength. What bonds them beyond the butterflies in their stomachs is the pleasure they take in feeling like they’re getting away with something—a pleasure that Anderson, whose movies are characteristically filled with confident men, charlatans, and start-up entrepreneurs, romanticizes with easy charm.
Back when Rysher Entertainment insisted on retitling Anderson’s debut, Sydney, as Hard Eight, the director joked that the name “sounded like a porno.” The original title for Licorice Pizza was Soggy Bottom, which refers literally to the fly-by-night waterbed business that turns Gary and Alana into business partners and figuratively to the horned-up vibes that leave nearly every scene coated in a sticky residue of desire. If there’s something inevitably moving about watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s kid play a self-styled Mattress Man, there’s also a bit of Punch-Drunk Love’s deadpan surrealism in the idea that a 15-year-old could manage a store like that fueled only by pure, hustling chutzpah. The film is set in a world where adults barely exist, and the grown-ups who do get face time—like the arrogant, sexually proprietary Peters, who brags about banging Barbra Streisand, or Sean Penn as a lecherous and barely disguised stand-in for William Holden—are depicted as predatory creeps. The same frustration with her own stalled present tense that draws Alana to Gary is also what pushes her toward Penn’s lizardly movie star in a subplot about her attempts to become an actress. (The movie she auditions for, a hippie-chick romance called Rainbow, riffs on Clint Eastwood’s Breezy.) But Penn’s character, who knows his way around the casting couch, is chasing a different kind of teenage glory, and ends up ditching his date in lieu of doing motorcycle tricks—an explicit callback to The Master in a sequence that has a slapstick punch line and a hopelessly romantic coda that finds Gary and Alana splayed out together on a bobbing waterbed, hands almost but not quite touching as Anderson keeps delaying the moment of release.
Because Licorice Pizza is so light and freewheeling, there’s a temptation to praise it—or write it off—as an auteurist doodle, but the seams between the scenes are teeming with political critique. Whether flipping through the newspaper or glancing at televisions blaring speeches by a pre-impeachment Richard Nixon about the floundering American economy, Gary and Alana commiserate in a sense of shared alienation that ultimately begins to pull them apart. Where Gary is content to luxuriate during a crisis of authority, Alana refuses to stay stuck in neutral, and, disillusioned by dating, decides to jump-start her own idling social conscience. The last act of the movie is set in and around the mayoral campaign of a young, skilled, ostensibly progressive Valley politician (played by Uncut Gems codirector Benny Safdie) and evokes period political dramas like The Candidate, with a little bit of Taxi Driver and Nashville sprinkled in.
Because Anderson has historically structured his movies around eruptive outbursts of violence—think of the New Year’s Eve party in Boogie Nights or the titular prophecy of There Will Be Blood—we’re preconditioned to worry about what might happen to Alana as the collateral damage of her ideological awakening, or else to anticipate a detour into SoCal civic corruption, à la Chinatown. But when the film shows its cards, the revelations are less terrifying than tender—a melancholy variation on Anderson’s running theme of wounded masculinity that also confirms Licorice Pizza as a movie propelled by fears of compromise.
The not-so-secret source of Anderson’s heroic stature in the eyes of so many has been a refusal to compromise. When he sent a copy of Hard Eight to Cannes behind his distributor’s back to ensure that his preferred cut would be the one seen by critics, the 26-year-old director was prematurely throwing his hat in the ring with the Coppolas and Ciminos of the Movie Brat generation. That kind of stubborness makes for good copy—and good movies—but a case can be made that PTA’s movies got even better once it was clear that he wasn’t so much pushing against something as toward something. What makes The Master one of the only truly visionary American movies of its era is the confidence it takes in being discombobulating—in reconfiguring a deep and existential sense of confusion from a bug into a feature. Phantom Thread is a beguiling and phantasmagorical gloss on Gothic romance pitched just this side of madness, and yet its status as a kind of social-media meme monster is due to how closely it hews to sketch comedy; the scene when Alma feeds Reynolds the poisoned omelette and leans in for a kiss just before he starts puking up his guts splits the difference between Hitchcock and the Farrelly brothers. It’s in refusing to choose between severity and goofiness that Anderson ends up with films that cut both ways—and draw blood in the process.
Licorice Pizza doesn’t show its teeth that often, and when it does, it’s usually in the form of a grin. While neophytes Hoffman and Haim aren’t as polished as actors like Vicky Krieps or [checks notes] Daniel Day-Lewis, they have great, malleable faces, and Anderson likes nothing more than to hold on them until they light up. But like all premium teen movies—from American Graffiti to Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Dazed and Confused—a lot of what’s funny in Licorice Pizza comes from how seriously its characters take themselves and their feelings, while whatever’s profound accumulates in throwaway moments. A shot of Gary and his pals pantomiming masturbation with empty gas cans works as a tender metaphor because it’s seen from Alana’s point of view, engendering the realization that this kind of boys-will-be-boys stupidity is actually more innocent and unguarded about its impulses than the world of smooth operators waiting on the other end of adolescence. And that image of Gary’s fingers creeping toward Alana’s but holding back becomes a humane, relatable emblem of temptation—of the things that hold us back, of longing as its own state of grace.
Because Licorice Pizza doesn’t really have a plot, there’s no way to really spoil its finale, but it’s enough to say that the final moments—featuring, once again, characters breaking out into a dead run—are flush with the same conflicting yet complementary sensations of arrival and departure as the codas of Punch-Drunk Love, Inherent Vice, or Phantom Thread. In the space of a single image, the characters are lost and found all at once. What makes it such a good ending—one of Anderson’s best—is that it makes uncertainty feel like its own kind of homecoming.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book on PTA, Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, is available to purchase from Abrams.