The coming-of-age genre is a chameleon — a vessel easily adaptable to a host of different backdrops and climates — and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” is the lizard languishing in the summer of the San Fernando Valley in California in 1973.
Those asked to come of age are Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), a big-boned 15-year-old kid-actor quickly running out of roles to play, and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), an easy-breezy 25-year-old with a level head weighing her prospects and biding her time as a photographer’s assistant.
And, like a chameleon, “Licorice Pizza” is a visual spectacle, shot on 35 mm film that captures the dreaminess of the early ’70s but with awkward physicalities — some racist and sexist tropes that were better left in the ’70s — that limit its majesty.
Gary, the smooth-talking hustler, is followed around by an entourage of latchkey-kid Lost Boys, his minions in his business ventures — first a waterbed company, then a pinball arcade. He’s their Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, but he acts the role of the de facto adult (the last role Gary seems well-equipped to play, having grown out of the ones available to him by his middle-aged talent
Gary’s reality as a teenager betrays his desire to act as the adult: He’s pimply and red-faced and tucks the tail of his shirt into his pants with clammy hands. He goes to bars and knows the patrons on a first-name basis, but he sits and orders rounds of only Coca-Cola.
But his latest and greatest attempt to grow up, thwarted by his teenage susceptibilities, is his infatuation with Alana, whom he meets when she taps her toes and holds the mirror Gary uses to fix his strawberry hair — a little greasy, but combed over meticulously —before he takes his high school yearbook picture.
Although Haim tackles her debut acting role with impressive ease and complexity, Alana Kane the character (and Haim by default) spends the film let down by her counterparts.
As a photographer’s assistant, she’s slapped on the tuchus by a photographer but brushes it off with a roll of her eyes.
When she takes former child actor Lance home for Shabbat dinner with her family (the real-life Haim family), she finds out that the boy she believed was Jewish actually identifies as an atheist. He refuses to do the Motzi over the challah, saying that if God existed, he wouldn’t have permitted the suffering in the Vietnam War.
Gary takes Alana to an agent later in the film, hoping to help her land some film and television roles. Alana comes prepared to say ‘yes’ to everything and bolsters her qualifications with the claim of speaking multiple languages, including Hebrew. The agent, despite proclaiming that “Jewish noses are becoming more popular,” is largely dismissive of Alana’s talent.
Alana is a chaperone, a babysitter and a beard for a closeted gay man, all of which seem to frustrate her chances of finding her passion.
But she’s let down by no one more than Gary and his illusions of grandeur when it comes to his businesses. She parades around in a bikini at the opening of Gary’s waterbed business, while everyone else remains clothed.
As Gary finds success, acts impetuously and is able to act as the businessman and also enjoy the immaturity that comes along with turning everyday objects into phalluses, Alana struggles. She’s caught in her need to find success in adulthood, but she is trapped by her desire to stay by Gary’s side, relishing in never-ending youth, flawed as it may be.
As Anderson is wont to do, he creates an ensemble of complex characters, places them into a specific yet resplendent setting and lets them roam free, exposing their shortcomings in the process.
As Gary and Alana’s relationship falls into the background of the story, replaced by their own individual journeys, the obvious age gap and illegality of their relationship falls away as well — out of sight, out of mind. But the audience’s discomfort remains, as it does in many of Anderson’s other films.
In Anderson’s effort to fill his world with fastidious details and color, he sometimes goes too far. His decision to have a white man in the film mock his Japanese wife’s language by speaking in a caricature of broken English felt particularly egregious and unnecessary.
The term “Licorice Pizza” is slang for a vinyl, and it’s the name of a chain of Southern California record stores for which Anderson had a clear affinity. Without any hints or explanation of the film’s title in the film itself, “Licorice Pizza” is an in-joke only Anderson gets.
Maybe that’s why “Licorice Pizza” feels more like a spectacle than a relatable bildungsroman. Anderson has manufactured a film to fulfill his own nostalgia in “Licorice Pizza,” not the audience’s.