Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is an effective work on nostalgia and unconventional structure
Paul Thomas Anderson has cemented a reputation as a director who consistently delivers unique and different films. Despite only having made nine films in thirty years, Thomas Anderson is becoming a figure in the film industry akin to Christopher Nolan (albeit without the box office appeal) of always trying something new and delivering quality. The American director’s latest film is a nostalgic trip to the 1970s California where he grew up.
Licorice Pizza (2021) follows fifteen-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman) an entrepreneurial actor who falls in love with 25-year-old unmoored and freewheeling Alana (Alana Haim). The film follows as they both seem to be on different wavelengths constantly missing each other in a relationship that on paper shouldn’t work (just as the ingredients in the title), but that as you spend more time with the characters, an inevitability begins to seep in.
Thomas Anderson is not so much interested in the problematic age dynamics between the romance of the two protagonists, as the fluid journey through memory and character. Licorice Pizza doesn’t have a clear-cut plot, instead it chooses to weave through vignettes and moments much in the same way as an older person would be reminiscing about a summer of their past. Sequences are strung together by the barest of threads, and yet you find yourself not needing a clear-cut conventional structure.
Thomas Anderson is able to pull of this rather unconventional narrative and premise thanks to his crucial focus on character. His writing and direction all indicate that it is in the latching of viewers to these protagonists that the film can succeed. You don’t much care about where the story is going as much as you want to just spend time with Alana and Gary. This is aided in large part thanks to an incredibly handling of two first-time actors. Both Haim and Hoffman are true breakouts in roles that truly become them. Both young performers handle their characters with a fiery charisma that makes getting out of your seat during the credits heartbreaking
It is thanks to this strong character work that Thomas Anderson is able to explore the deeper subjects that surround Licorice Pizza. While we seem to be twirling within the chaotic platonic romance of Alana and Gary, Thomas Anderson takes digs at the world of politics and Hollywood as well; showing the subtle (and not so subtle) racism, misogyny, and insufferable egos entrenched throughout. It proves to be an effective contrast, of a brutal and ugly world within the fantastical escapades of our two protagonists.
In the end, Licorice Pizza is yet another convincing and transporting film from Thomas Anderson. His risky use of character over plot pays off, though some viewers might be put off by the wandering pace. I was fascinated with Thomas Anderson’s expert use of camera and music. With it the American director has created a feeling of memory and nostalgia for a time and place that many of us likely have never even known. That is the true magic of the movies.