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Licorice Pizza combines California sun and teenage devotion for a sweet nostalgic treat

Buzzing car radios, heaps of 70s references and Southern California’s own unique brand of golden sun; Licorice Pizza proves a subtle success for PTA

By Jonnie Hann, Third Year, Economics and Politics

I’ve been listening to a lot of Fiona Apple lately. On her 2020 album Fetch The Bolt Cutters, her first in eight years, Apple matched spunky delivery with brutally honest lyricism about life after being a 90s LA cool kid; in those years, she dated Paul Thomas Anderson for three, before terminating the allegedly toxic romance.

On the press tour for Fetch The Bolt Cutters, she opened up about some of their experiences together: one favourite (and famous) anecdote is her determination never to touch coke again following a night spent in a cinema with Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and one too many trips to the bathroom. Supposedly, it was the bragging that did it for her.

Alana Haim & Cooper Hoffman / Courtesy of UPI Media

Apple revealed that information in an interview in 2020, and Licorice Pizza is Anderson’s first film since. On the surface, it bears ironic similarity to Tarantino’s only film since coke-gate, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019). Both are set in Los Angeles in the treacly, nostalgic past (Once Upon a Time… was the 60s, Licorice Pizza is the 70s), both are shot on film; Anderson and his producers took it even further and distributed it partly in 35mm, available at the Watershed. But, despite dazzling cinematography, Once Upon a Time… fell flat, with an almost three hour runtime that seemed to lead to nowhere.

Sure, an irresolute plot doesn’t necessarily make a bad film, particularly when it comes to  Hollywood’s reflections on itself (see: Lynch’s Mulholland Drive), but none of Once Upon a Time…’s individual parts could really add up to enough. Unfortunately, that film seemed to fall into a category of films made by Hollywood for Hollywood, giving a slight sense that Fiona Apple knew what she was talking about.

Alana & Sean Penn / Courtesy of UPI Media

But while Once Upon A Time… quite easily represents charged up self indulgence, Licorice Pizza is far more gentle. Sure, it’s still soaked in nostalgia, buzzing car radios, heaps of 70s cultural references and Southern California’s own unique brand of golden sun. It has no defined narrative arc, and is, too, filled with (this time genuinely funny) Hollywood-parody skits. But, at the centre of Licorice Pizza shines a love story, and it is through the relationship of its two main characters that Paul Thomas Anderson manages for the film’s twists and turns not to make it feel fragmented, nor turn off the audience.

Instead, after Alana (Alana Haim, joined by family) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) meet at the very beginning of the film, it moves almost like a stream at the beginning of its course: excited, bubbling, and entirely unsure of which direction it will flow. Although, fortunately, it’s clear that the director is sure (which I guess is to be expected from Paul Thomas Anderson).

Courtesy of UPI Media

It’s unconventional, certainly; Gary is fifteen and Alana is twenty-five. But this isn’t a traditional Hollywood valentine, instead the platonic kind of love that, stripped of sexed up passion so common to the big screen, feels equally genuine as it is joyful. I think the magic here is that everything that should feel real does, and everything that shouldn’t doesn’t.

If that was unclear, what I’m trying to say is that whilst the whole thing lies within rose-coloured memory of youthful love, the characters look and act like refreshingly believable people (pimples in Hollywood!).

Courtesy of UPI Media

And that’s where Licorice Pizza differs from Tarantino’s film: whilst Once Upon a Time… felt at times like an exclusionary Hollywood in-joke, Licorice Pizza takes the real-as-anything, perhaps fleeting, yet entirely unbounded teenage devotion that we, the audience, also know, and submerges it into the fantastical world of palm trees and pinball machines. Oh, and waterbeds.

Featured Image: UPI Media

Licorice Pizza is screening now nationwide