The 70s were weird, or so I’m told. The general cultural consensus seems to be that on balance it was a terrible decade that combined all the worst elements of the previous decade (political tumult, crime, moral uncertainty) with all the worst elements of the next decade (cultural commodification, conservative social backlash, embarrassing fashion) along with some aesthetic choices which feel like they never could have been seen as tasteful. The music and movies of the era tend to hold up pretty well, in part because it was the decade when baby boomers became adults, thus making it one of the few times when there was more money to be made in catering to adults than children. But those boomer adults mostly seem to look back on the decade with disdain. Gen Xers (or at least honorary Gen Xers) on the other hand seem to look back on the decade with more affection. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and even people who grew up during the worst of warfare and economic depression are capable of coming out with at least some odd affection for the times they grew up in. Up to now the definitive film of 70s nostalgia was almost certainly Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a 90s movie about teenagers in suburban Texas circa 1976. Beyond that you maybe have Wit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. But few movies are as oddly pro-70s as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights a movie that seems to suggest that from a certain perspective the 70s were actually awesome for all the reasons most people are disgusted by it (cocaine, dirty sex, disco) while the 80s were lame and stifling. Well, Paul Thomas Anderson has now returned to that decade, this time looking at it from a slightly more chill perspective via his long awaited 70s set film Licorice Pizza.
Specifically Licorice Pizza is set in 1973 and in the San Fernando Valley and it looks at a rather unconventional relationship between a fifteen year old actor and “go getter” named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and a somewhat aimless young woman ten years his elder named Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Despite being of high school age Valentine has been working as an actor both in features and in commercials from a very young age and is already moving into other ventures like starting a business selling water beds (then a new invention) to the surrounding areas. Kane joins him in this venture along with some other friends and siblings and their exploits will to encounter all sorts of Hollywood eccentrics like fictional aging actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), fictional director Rex Blau (Tom Waits), real life producer and spider enthusiast Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), and real life local politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). Throughout all this the two of them have a sort of “will they or won’t they” dynamic as both of them aren’t exactly sure whether they should be something more than friends given the age differential and occasional bouts of interest in other people.
Paul Thomas Anderson was born in 1970, meaning that he was three years old when this was set so it would be a mistake to view this as a movie that’s autobiographical. Instead this appears to have been inspired by the recollections of a showbiz friend of his named Gary Goetzman, who is currently a producer who works a lot with Tom Hanks. Like Gary Valentine, Goetzman’s biggest credit by 1973 would have been as a child star in a dopey comedy called Yours, Mine and Ours (fictionalized here as Under One Roof) and like Valentine he had a bunch of other hustles at a ridiculously young age. The film is also populated with other L.A. figures both famous and obscure, some of them lightly fictionalized and some of them named by name. The aging Jack Holden, played here by Sean Penn, appears to be based on William Holden and while I don’t have a source for this I’m going to guesstimate that the rugged aging director played by Tom Waits is based on Sam Peckinpah. Meanwhile they just name producer/Barbra Streisand ex/Shampoo inspiration Jon Peters by name and making him this hilarious crazy person who pops into the film for a fifteen minute stretch, possibly just because Anderson knew Peters had a sense of humor about his reputation. Some of these people are a bit more obscure as well, like a restaurateur played by John Michael Higgins called Jerry Frick who has this weird racist banter with his Japanese wife and late in the film we meet a local politician named Joel Wachs, who is also real and was apparently a figure in southern California politics for decades to come. All of this suggests a bit of a portrait of this odd community in the time and place that’s not exactly connected to the film industry but certainly on its periphery and where you can just run into eccentrics at will and where it feels like you can accomplish things a bit easier than you’d maybe expect elsewhere, for better or worse.
So, let’s get to the elephant in the room: this is a movie about a relationship between a fifteen year old and a twenty five year old… is that creepy or what? At the very least that’s a tension that runs through the film and it’s something that needs to be approached with a bit of nuance that tends to be absent from conversations about these sorts of things. In many ways I think this movie can be viewed as something of a weird funhouse mirror companion piece to Anderson’s last film Phantom Thread. While the two movies have vastly different tones and settings, what they have in common is that both of them are basically film length peeks into unconventional relationships between unconventional people which you’re not exactly sure you can approve of. That film looked at a dynamic which, in terms of wealth differential and temperament could be viewed as emotionally abusive except that the woman in that film proved to be a tougher cookie than you’d expect at first glance and was able to find ways bring her husband down to earth. Here there are a number of factors making the power dynamic between these two rather… unconventional.
Valentine is indeed quite a bit younger than Kane, but he’s also not your average teenager. His child star upbringing and general disposition has made him the more confident, independent, wealthy, and worldly of the two and you don’t get the impression that he’s being outsmarted or taken advantage of by Kane, who by contrast lives at home with her family and generally seems kind of aimless in life. Does all this meant that such a relationship, is “okay?” Not necessarily. It should be noted that the relationship between Valentine and Kane appears to be basically unconsummated for much of the run of the film, which sort of sidesteps some of the thornier aspects of all of this and I don’t think it’s really making much of an argument that this relationship is some sort of true love that will last forever or even much past the summer. More broadly though this does not strike me as a movie that’s trying to justify or make excuses for these kind of age differentials in general any more than a movie showing someone snorting a line of cocaine without consequences is necessarily trying to say that drugs can never hurt you. It’s all meant to be very specific to these two people and their very unusual dynamic.
But all this talk of sexual ethics really misses the forest for the trees and distracts from the bigger takeaway, namely that this movie is a fuckin’ blast. The movie can pretty legitimately be called a comedy without qualification as it is going for laughs in almost every scene and it has a lot of that energy that Paul Thomas Anderson was famous for in his early films but without some of his excessive tendencies from that era. The film does have a bit of an episodic structure especially in the second half where it almost feels like a series of guest stars showing up, which may be a touch odd to some people but I think it works well for the movie in conveying how these characters are just kind of flowing through life in this weird breezy summer and some of these episodes are just priceless, that sequence with Bradley Cooper is some of the most amusing shit you’re going to see all year. It’s certainly not the deepest movie that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made but movies about teenagers dicking around in the San Fernando Valley during the 70s are by their nature not going to be as deep as movies about oil barons and cult leaders, but that doesn’t mean that it was made any less thoughtfully and the fact that he’s able to make both points to the sheer depth of his talents. There’s basically nothing I’d change about this film… except maybe the title, not sure what that’s all about.
****1/2 out of Five