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Licorice Pizza proves Paul Thomas Anderson is a master of unexpected romance

There’s more to it than swoony love in his films — including this one.

A young woman stands in the foreground wearing a T-shirt that reads “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” In the background a teenage boy watches her.
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza.
Courtesy of MGM
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Memorable images abound in Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies — frogs dropping from the sky in Magnolia, Adam Sandler stockpiling pudding cups in Punch-Drunk Love, Bradley Cooper yelling in his latest, Licorice Pizza — but the scenes that stick with me most crackle with electric connection between two weirdos who’ve spotted, at last, their match.

Like Emily Watson telling Sandler, ecstatically, that “I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.” John C. Reilly and Melora Walters in Magnolia confessing to one another that they’re afraid if the other knows them, they won’t like them. Joaquin Phoenix intently listening as Philip Seymour Hoffman, the leader of a cult in The Master, tells the group that “when we’re in love we experience pleasure, and extreme pain.” A much younger, sweatier Hoffman eyeing new adult film star Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights and struggling to contain his desire. Clean-shaven Daniel Day-Lewis watching with hungry eyes as Vicky Krieps makes him a poisonous mushroom omelet in Phantom Thread. Even mustachioed Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood hurling bowling balls at his nemesis, Paul Dano, in his absurd private bowling alley, hollering about drinking his milkshake.

You could cut the tension with a hacksaw in every scene, and dozens of others, and yet you couldn’t easily describe what’s going on. Hate? Lust? Yearning? Envy? Love? The characters don’t know either, but they’ll spend the whole movie trying to figure it out, and so will we.

Anderson makes romances, even when they’re not exactly romantic; he’s always looking for what connects two people with a bond that seems etched by fate. There’s always something wild and untamable and unnerving in his pairings. They’re never quite what you expect. They explode the narrow borders we draw around the definition of romance.

It’s why Licorice Pizza, his latest, feels so assured and confident, so perfectly notched into his filmography. This time the pair at its center is young, though not exactly carefree. Alana Kane (Alana Haim, of the band Haim, who is perfect) is a photo assistant in her mid-20s living in the San Fernando Valley with her parents and older sisters, all of whom have experienced failure to launch. (They’re played by the whole Haim family.) It’s 1971, and everything from the Vietnam War to mounting gasoline shortages looms in the background, but mostly Alana’s just bored.

Young woman side-eyes the camera from the front seat of a car; there’s a teenager and a kid in her car.
Just so bored.
Courtesy of MGM

Disaffected and having no idea what she wants from life, Alana is drawn into a strange friendship — a romance, kind of — with Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), a teenager who has the world by the tail. Or, at least, he acts like it. He’s an actor who’s booked some mid-level gigs; he talks like he’s 40; he’s always coming up with some new business to run. He, of course, lives with his mother (Mary Elizabeth Ellis).

Gary spots Alana in line on school picture day and asks her out. When she scoffs at the notion — she is, after all, technically an adult, 10 years older than him, and he’s technically a child — he doesn’t give up. Through some conniving on Gary’s part, and surrender to the inevitable and a growing curiosity on Alana’s, they become not a couple, but friends. Gary’s constantly asking Alana for more, with the eagerness only a teenage boy can muster. A master of the devastating eye roll, she looks like she wants to punch him all the time, but she does like his company. Something about hanging out with him and his friends invigorates her and reminds her of ... what? She doesn’t even know. But it’s been a long time since she’s smiled.

That push and pull between them leads them on all kinds of adventures, backed by the kind of soundtrack you’ve got to dance to and shot with the shaggy, grainy looseness that richly demonstrates Anderson’s ease with films of the era. Gary starts a waterbed company and gets Alana on board (after all, she has a driver’s license). They have a wild night on the town with director Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and daredevil Rex Blau (Tom Waits) in which they realize they’ve got to protect one another. The greatest and most memorable scene happens when they have to bring a waterbed to the home of Jon Peters (a gonzo Bradley Cooper) — who in real life was a film producer, Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend, and the inspiration for the movie Shampoo — and run into hilarious trouble with, well, everything.

Strife and frustration with one another drive them apart. But when Alana brushes up against the reality of adulthood while working on the mayoral campaign of the idealistic Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), it’s clarifying, for both Alana and for the movie. Licorice Pizza (named for a series of record shops in LA at the time) is about a couple of young people who may or may not be in love but certainly love one another. It’s also about how much adulthood sucks, and about a girl who can’t quite bring herself to wade into those waters, not yet.

In a white tuxedo, Bradley Cooper crouches between two cars, screaming.
Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters in Licorice Pizza.
Courtesy of MGM

And it’s all set in a Los Angeles that’s sitting right on a fault line, just a few years after the Manson murders famously rocked the city’s glitterati and in the midst of an upheaval in the movie business, which was getting busted open by independent filmmakers. Everything was changing, and not everyone was ready.

Anderson has said he based the film on his own memories (though he’s younger than his characters, born in 1970) and on the experiences of real-life actor Gary Goetzman, who among other things co-founded Playtone with Tom Hanks. You can tell; the film, which is structured as a series of set pieces that Alana and Gary stumble into and out of, is far too strange and specific and sometimes cringey to simply be made up, even by someone with as fertile an imagination as Anderson.

But, of course, he’s treading familiar ground. This is a romance. The key ingredients are all there. We’re used to thinking of romance in terms of moony lovey-dovey smooches, longing sighs, stolen glances, maybe passionate romps in the hay. But in Anderson’s vocabulary, the word is more capacious. In his worlds, a romance springs up between two people who cross one another’s eyeline and instantly recognize that something they’re missing, something they need to survive — a comforter, a cheerleader, a lover, a nemesis — is right in front of them.

Those are never uncomplicated romances, and they’re always backed, not (always) by sex, but by the desire to keep the thread that ties one to the other intact. In his past films, some manifest as outright antagonism — you’re never quite sure if Daniel and Eli or Freddie and Dodd will kiss or kill one another. Others come in terms that are sweeter, but always laced with danger; a mushroom omelet is never just a mushroom omelet.

In the case of Licorice Pizza, the central (and fundamentally goofily chaste) romance is about feeling safe in the middle of a world that seems to be barreling downhill backward into madness. It’s about knowing someone really sees you and likes you, even loves you, anyhow.

Licorice Pizza opens in limited theaters on November 26 and widely on December 22.

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