This week saw the passing of Peter Bogdanovich, whose 1971 masterpiece The Last Picture Show is one of many reference points in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Licorice Pizza. Just to explain the title: “Licorice” is American for “liquorice.”
Every art form eventually runs out of things to say and starts critiquing itself. Recent features like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! and La La Land find Hollywood’s top directors (and Damien Chazelle) turning the camera inwards. More minor examples include the overrated Baby Driver and underrated Finding Steve McQueen. Where early flicks about the industry (Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard) told stories about Hollywood within a traditional framework, these postmodern pictures dismantle that framework, making storytelling a low priority.
Licorice Pizza is such an exercise, more a series of “inside baseball” vignettes than a conventional narrative. For a while the self-conscious comedy is kept afloat by the soda-fizzing chemistry between the two leads, neither of whom have acted before. Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays 15-year-old actor and entrepreneur Gary Valentine, and Alana Haim (from the band Haim) his 25-year-old best friend and love interest Alana Kane. They rub shoulders with stars, start a waterbed company and drive around the San Fernando Valley before the wheels come off the story, then trundles past the 2-hour mark with no gas left in the tank.
Anderson shoots the 1973 locale with obvious affection for the town that raised him, where the kids play at being adults and the grown-ups act like children. But for every clever joke about Hollywood artifice there is a lazy stereotype or racist reference, intended as commentary but neither interesting nor funny enough to justify their inclusion. Without them this might have been a warm 90 minutes, no longer requiring multiple scenes of people running around to pop songs (the contemporary soundtrack features David Bowie, Todd Rundgren and The Doors) to create the illusion of something happening.
One of the director’s greatest influences, Robert Altman was a master at juggling even larger casts than this and fully developing every character. If he was refuting the Hollywood notion that we are merely bit parts in each other’s lives, Anderson reinforces it. He keeps introducing new plot threads and characters (including Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Bradley Cooper) for brief inserts instead of properly building the ones we are meant to care about, who are actually quite unlikeable by the end.
Licorice Pizza is not a bad film, but it is probably Anderson’s worst; a self-indulgent rambler that feels baggier than adult clothes on a teenager. It does mark the first time in ages that anyone has fun in his movies, just a shame it is only the actors.