Why Movie Lovers May Want To Run, Not Walk to ‘Licorice Pizza’

The idea that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a standout in what overall was a dismal year of filmmaking has gained some official backing.  

An Oscar statue. Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, file
Academy Awards file photo Oscars statue An Oscar statue. Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, file

With “Licorice Pizza” earning Oscar nominations today in three of the big categories — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay — the idea that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a standout in what overall was a dismal year of filmmaking has gained some official backing.  

Showing in theaters now, the film furthers Mr. Anderson’s explorations of attraction and coupledom following his last movie, “Phantom Thread.” This time, he looks at it from a looser perspective, yielding a fun, fresh view of young people taking their first steps toward romance and “adulting.”

Coming-of-age movies, a genre popular with youth-obsessed Hollywood and nearly as bound by convention as Westerns, usually trot out the young love trope as the maturing element — the moment when running and stumbling leads to walking and wisdom. “Licorice Pizza” both reinforces this tradition while subverting it with gusto.

The two leads in Mr. Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” do occasionally walk, but it’s their constant running that stays with the viewer. This exuberance characterizes the movie, as the characters dart to and from each other, energizing the young love story at its core. 

Set in the early 1970s, with an absolute knockout of a contemporaneous soundtrack, the thrust of the movie involves the two growing closer by working various odd jobs together, with their falling in and out of love always portrayed in motion. The movie begins with Cooper Hoffman’s (son of Philip Seymour) character, Gary, flirting relentlessly with Alana Haim’s (also called Alana in the movie) as he waits to get his high school picture taken. With the camera shuffling restlessly as the two of them inch closer to the photographer — Alana is the photographer’s assistant — it’s a dynamic start to a movie that will almost never stop moving.

In the course of the next two hours, Gary gets mistakenly arrested and Alana runs after the cop car, and after his release they dash away for several blocks for no other reason than they can; Alana falls off a motorcycle driven by Sean Penn’s alcoholic, faded film star character (based on William Holden) and Gary subsequently runs across a golf course to make sure she’s okay; and other such movements.

Like an iconic scene in “Jules and Jim” featuring the characters racing across a footbridge, running is both metaphor and conduit for love and physicality in this film. A clever twist on running occurs in the movie’s thrilling centerpiece sequence, in which a truck driven by Alana “runs” out of gas and, with Gary in the passenger seat, she proceeds to glide it through the winding hills of Los Angeles until they make it safely down to a valley of straight streets.

The constant motion of the characters and camera may distract the viewer from realizing that there are some weighty issues arising now and then in the course of this love story. Police ineptitude, an energy crisis, casual racism, sexism, and homophobia — issues that of course reverberate today — sprint up to take center stage for hot minutes before the prancing pas de deux of Alana and Gary returns. 

While it may come off as minimizing the seriousness of these issues, it rings true with the pace of first loves and the blinders often involved in romance. 

If Alana finally realizes that Gary is “the one” via her interaction with a closeted politician’s long-suffering lover, one can think of it as another example of minor gay characters acting as foils for cisgender, hetero lead characters. Or one can just go with the flow and accept the fact that Alana does finally come to realizations — of her own immaturity, her love of Gary, her need to support and be supported by him — with the help of a character who happens to be gay during an era hostile to homosexuals. Privilege recognized.

Much has been made of the movie’s verisimilitude to actual personalities in and around Los Angeles at the time — Jon Peters, Gary Goetzman, and politician Joel Wachs among them — but I’m not very interested in this myopic aspect of criticism, and I don’t imagine many moviegoers being so either. 

Similar to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Mr. Anderson draws inspiration from real life to re-create a very specific time and place. Unlike Mr. Tarantino, he doesn’t mire the movie in empty machismo, but makes Alana the main character after focusing on Gary early on. Despite a few coming-of-age cliches, this shift in focus — or dual focus — provides another bracing layer to a movie that’s filled with breathless moments.

The New York Sun

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