Movie Review: P.T. Anderson reaches for the Sweets with “Licorice Pizza”

For his latest picture, Paul Thomas Anderson turns picaresque for an unconventional romance parked on Hollywood’s periphery, lightly dusted with glorious pieces of Hollywood lore.

“Licorice Pizza,” like its title, flirts with being treacly sweet and serves up a teens’ idealized eye view of the same era that Tarantino settled into and sent-up with “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.”

The director of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” riffs on the very early ’70s, back in the seriously unfashionable Encino in “The Valley,” where as “Boogie” reminded us, porn was king and those who never quite achieved Hollywood stardom could afford to live while they longed for the Big Brass Ring. They hustled around the edges, pieced together lives and flitted from fad to fad, always in search of the next Big Thing and a way of cashing in on it.

Characters are more sketched-in than wholly-formed as Anderson emphasizes referencing films as diverse as “Almost Famous” and “Taxi Driver,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Love Story” as well as his own “Punch Drunk Love” and “Boogie Nights.” It’s not about anything so much as youthful longing, and isn’t really organized to take us any place but where Anderson is, right here right now.

He gives us young people looking askance at those “successes” older than them. And if nothing else, he presents Bradley Cooper in a hilarious, over-the-top turn as ’70s hairdresser-turned-Streisand-lover/producer and epic Hollywood rhymes-with-trick Jon Peters. Cooper’s glorious send-up of Peters is one of the great pleasures of movie-going this year and all but takes over the movie.

And in a film that features an actress (Christine Ebersole) based on the “Godzilla” rep of Lucille Ball, that’s saying something.

Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour H.) plays Gary Valentine, the sort of average 15 year-old you wouldn’t give a second glance back then. Lumpy, with bad skin, untended teeth and that greasy early ’70s mop top that was never fashionable, Gary has just one essential advantage as he navigates life. He’s confident and well-spoken.

That’s how he has the chutzpah to hit on 25 year-old camera assistant Alana (screen newcomer Alana Haim of the band Haim) on class photo day. Leggy and long-haired in that Marcia Brady style, Alana wouldn’t have casting directors rushing to give her their card and scheduling screen tests. She’s ordinary, like Gary, but cute enough to be out of his league.

Only Gary’s almost famous. He was just in a big family ensemble comedy of the “With Six You Get Eggroll/Yours, Mine and Ours” variety. He’s done commercials and bit parts. He’s “known” — in Encino, anyway. And he is politely persistent in his pursuit of the fair Alana.

Theirs will be a long, circuitous courtship made more real thanks to business partnership. Gary will long for her and idealize her backed by the pop of Cher, the singer-songwriter love ballads of Gordon Lightfoot and the testy, brittle break-up rock of Joe Walsh and the James Gang.

He’s telling his kid brother “You’re gonna be my best man” the instant he meets her, throwing “You should be an actress” out there as he name-and-credit-drops his “fame.” She’s not interested, but not walking away from this kid who’ll “be rich and in a mansion by the time you’re 16.” But seriously, “Stop with the ‘googly eyes!'”

His first chance to impress is a dinner date, where we pick up on how every restaurateur in town is on a first-name basis — with a 15-year old. The second time? He needs a chaperone to do a guest appearance with the rest of that ensemble-of-kids-cast and their Lucy-like “star” (Ebersole, blowsy and mercurial) on a New York TV show.

Alana is on a plane, being hit-on by Gary’s smoother co-star (Skyler Gisondo), but the center of “her” teen’s attention and when she isn’t calling him “creep,” she’s impressed.

We follow these two through Gary’s rapidly-ending career and the ventures he has the cash and the wherewithal — Mom (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) runs a cut-rate local marketing/PR firm he finances — to dive into.

He wanders past a wig shop and sees a new “item” the hustler-owner has added to his line — big vinyl bladders, “waterbeds,” and senses the “next big thing ” He hears that the decades-long “pinball machine ban” may end, and conjures up an arcade.

All along the way, Alana keeps rejecting him, fighting with her “former Israeli Army” officer dad and convincing her peers she’s “NOT” dating a 15-going-on-16 year-old at the tail end of the Vietnam War and Watergate all the way through the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo.

Anderson recreates this world not just with tunes, cars (Gary bought a ’69 GTO, which he’s not old enough to drive) and the ugliest fashions in American history. He gets the complexions and body types right. Nobody worked out, no one planned very far ahead, the “Adam 12” era LAPD was utterly out-of-control and everybody listened to Vin Scully broadcasting the Dodgers…on AM radio.

I’m always fascinated by PTA’s take on runaway “capitalism,” the entrepreneurial habitues of the shifty side of the spectrum. This film has plenty of that.

John Michael Higgins plays the owner of the Mikado restaurant, marrying a succession of Japanese wives/partners whom he tries to communicate with via seriously offensive sing-song pidgin English, like Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Anderson packs the story with break-out episodes — Jon Peters wants a waterbed, a faded film “legend” played by Sean Penn hits on Alana, mainly to recapture his lost glory and have somebody to show off his fame to — peopled by funny but somewhat disposable characters.

Harriet Sansom Harris plays another agent “type,” an aged, down-market version of a character she memorably played on TV’s “Frasier.” She’s the one who hears the results of Gary’s coaching Alana to “always say ‘yes'” when you’re asked if you can ride a horse, speak a foreign language because “you can always learn something AFTER you’ve gotten the part.”

Anderson favorite John C. Reilly plays Fred Gwynne, dolled up as TV’s Herman Munster, in a cameo.

“Licorice Pizza” entertains lightly and drags along between its best moments (most involving Jon Peters) as Anderson is more interested in tableaux and tone than a straightforward story. By the time he packs in a political campaign with dark undertones, it’s become a movie that has as many moving parts as “Magnolia” when it might have held together better in “Hard Eight” territory.

If there’s a point, it might be that “kids grew up a lot faster” and less supervised back then, especially out there.

For people fascinated by the era, either as nostalgia or a distant past they’d love to know more about, it’s an immersive trip, “Once Upon a Time…” without the violence and with a lot fewer F-bombs. If it’s not one of Anderson’s best, “the good parts” stand out as some of the most endearing moments the movies have given us this year.

Rating:  R for language, sexual material and some drug use.

Cast: Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, Skyler Gisondo, Christine Ebersole, Tom Waits, John C. Reilly, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Benny Safdie, Harriet Sansom Harris, Maya Rudolph, Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. An MGM/UA release.

Running time: 2:13

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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