Film Critic Frankie Rhodes reviews Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film Licorice Pizza, writing that it does not live up to the hype, despite the story’s great potential
When you watch the trailer of Licorice Pizza, you’re promised a whimsical love story between two teenagers, interspersed with the trials and tribulations of growing up, set to a cracking ’70s soundtrack. I only had to watch the trailer once and I was sold, believing this was a quirky coming-of-age movie like no other. Watching it in the cinema, I was met with the reality of a disappointing, disjointed, and (I have to say it) boring piece – a poor film, marketed exceptionally well.
Set in 70s American suburbia, the film begins with a shot of a high-school corridor as the students queue up for their annual photographs. The premise is simple: boy meets girl, only you have to look a little further than that. The Birmingham What’s On guide states that it ‘tells the story of a 15-year-old child actor and his interaction with a woman who’s old enough to be his big sister.’ But wait a second – Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is not just big-sister age, she’s twenty-five, a whole decade older than Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), the schoolboy who immediately asks her on a date. Aside from the obvious point that this relationship would be deemed predatory if the genders were switched, the coupling creates uncomfortable scenarios that cast shadows primarily on Alana’s character, an otherwise worthy heroine.
The two leads are played by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, part of the musical trio Haim (the other two also appear in the movie as her sisters). This film has a serious problem with exploiting celebrity value, but more on that later. For now it should be noted that the acting of the two leads is exceptional; they are refreshingly ordinary, unexpectedly hilarious, and consistently engaging. It’s just a shame they are the co-stars of a bad film.
The main issue I have is relating to structure. The core storyline (if Alana were only a few years younger) is gold, documenting the hapless ambition of two youngsters trying to overcome the hopelessness of suburbia. But alongside this thread, we are constantly being introduced to extra characters and plots that we have no reason to care about. And these storylines come thick and fast, so that you’re never quite sure when the film will finally pack up and move to a close. I found myself looking at my watch only 90 minutes in, despite my ability to sit through four-hour-long Shakespeare productions quite happily.
Take, for example, the cameo from Bradley Cooper, which is so just-for-the-sake-of-it that it hurts. He is portraying Jon Peters, a real-life film producer and Barbra Streisand’s former partner, who is being sold a waterbed by Gary and Alana. His bizarrely threatening interaction with the couple could have been taken straight out of his role as Pat in the Silver Linings Playbook, or Phil in The Hangover, which is to say that it is completely unoriginal. The Independent described him as ‘scene-stealing,’ which simply exposes the gimmick of chucking a famous actor into the movie without adequately explaining why on earth he’s there.
Another cameo comes from Sean Penn, portraying a sleazy director that Alana auditions for, before she accompanies him to a swanky restaurant (seemingly to make Gary jealous). This leads to a beyond-bizarre scene where a 25-year-old is cosying up to a 60-year-old to make an impact on her 15-year-old crush, and the whole thing undermines the dignity of her role. Later, Sean Penn’s character gathers the whole restaurant to a soccer pitch where he recreates one of his famous film scenes on a motorbike. Why? I have no idea.
While some could argue that these storylines serve to represent nostalgia for the glory days of music and film, they felt more aggressively pretentious than quietly compelling. There was one brief section that I was almost convinced by, where Alana volunteers for a young political candidate who has a heart-rending secret. Yet, as this was introduced around twenty minutes before the end of the film, I was simply too tired at that point to care about this new character. All of this material took away from the moments that the film handled best: Gary and Alana sprinting around the town and going on crazy entrepreneurial adventures.
As is evident from the trailer, which narrates the film almost literally using David Bowie’s track ‘Life on Mars,’ this movie relies on its soundtrack. 70s hits appear as if from nowhere and attempt to create the kind of barefoot indie-road-trip vibe that the film fails to deliver. A jazzy piano backing tells us that we should find Gary and Alana’s first date romantic, even as the very characters themselves are cringing. The 2016 flop Suicide Squad comes to mind, where the lack of interesting characterisation is masked by blaring a pop hit during any important moment.
Tragically, this film lets down its leading lady countless times. So many things about Alana, from her disparate age to her tendency to flirt with any male character that she comes across, undermine her stellar performance. Some of my favourite moments in the film were those that focussed on her and her alone: such as the opening shot of her sauntering through the high school in a tennis skirt, and the later sequence where she struts all the way home in a purple bikini. A character with such potential deserves to be rescued from this substandard film.
The Independent aptly described Licorice Pizza as protagonist Gary Valentine’s ‘self-aggrandising fantasy,’ and I would emphasise that this is a specifically male fantasy, where the female lead is embarrassingly manipulated. As the movie racks up 5* reviews, I’m left feeling alienated, which I would owe to the disparity between what people want the film to be, and what it actually is. To a film-fanatic millennial, it’s a nostalgic look at American pop culture. To me, it’s a painfully offensive and yet painfully boring indulgence.
Licorice Pizza is out now in cinemas.
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