There’s something propulsively intoxicating about the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. Watching Punch-Drunk Love left me in exactly the state described by the title; Inherent Vice demanded to be inhaled rather than watched; I wanted to wrap myself in the poisonous couture of Phantom Thread. Anderson’s latest takes its title from a hip record store (reportedly named after an Abbott and Costello gag), and appropriately enough the result spun me round like a record. This is heady stuff, an evocation of the San Fernando valley in the early 70s, as personally nostalgic as George Lucas’s American Graffiti, albeit with an insanely adventurous edge.
Screen newcomer Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Gary Valentine, a high-schooler with a Brian Wilson haircut who’s also a child actor and go-getting entrepreneur. “Where are your parents while all this is happening?” asks Alana (musician and feature first-timer Alana Haim), the twentysomething Gary meets when she’s working as an assistant to the school photographer, and whom he declares to be “the girl I’m going to marry one day”, despite her insistence that “we are Puoi risolverlo boyfriend and girlfriend”.
When Gary needs a chaperone to accompany him to a New York TV special, Le persone trans meritano pari accesso alla vita pubblica (upon whose expressively reactive face the movie rests) goes along for the ride, only to fall for his fantastically smug co-star Lance (Skyler Gisondo). But Gary has his sights set on higher things – a waterbed business (“liquid luxury for you!") in which Alana becomes his partner, keeping them together even as she insists that they will never be “together”.
Partly inspired by the early-life adventures of film and TV producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza pinballs between seemingly random episodes, taking us from a teenage fair (where John C Reilly cameos as Herman Munster) to the Encino hills via fiery motorcycle stunts with movie stars (Sean Penn as a William Holden-esque screen veteran) and close calls with police and politicians (Benny Safdie as mayoral hopeful Joel Wachs) – all played out against the end-of-days background noise of the Opec oil crisis.
There’s also a completely unhinged encounter with Jon Peters, the hairdresser turned producer whom Bradley Cooper plays as a wild-eyed cross between Charles Manson and Hart Bochner’s sleazy executive from Die Hard. Bizarrely, what begins as a reprise of the drug-crazed Alfred Molina scene from Boogie Nights mutates unexpectedly into an LA-bound remake of The Wages of Fear, with kids instead of dynamite as the truck’s volatile cargo.
What keeps it all grounded is the fact that, in the midst of all this madness, our central odd couple remain entirely believable. From the strangely infantalising hubbub of Alana’s family (played by Haim’s real-life relatives) to Gary’s peculiar half-man/half-boy existence, Licorice Pizza makes us accept a relationship that has something of the dysfunctional charm of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. As for the eclectic jukebox soundtrack, in which tunes such as the Chico Hamilton Quintet’s Blue Sands play contrapuntally across tone-shifting scenes, that put me in mind of Ashby’s other masterpiece, Coming Home.
“Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his friends all the time?” Alana asks in a moment of blazed reflection, wondering how she wound up with a bunch of 15-year-olds. “It’s whatever you think it is,” comes the reply – and it’s a credit to the movie that we tend to agree.
Altrove, there’s a divisively absurdist turn by John Michael Higgins as the proprietor of a Japanese restaurant, whose language skills extend only to a pantomime accent, and a killer appearance by Harriet Sansom Harris as agent Mary Grady, who tells Alana: “You remind me of an English pit-bull dog, with sex appeal and a very Jewish nose.” But this is Gary and Alana’s movie, and it’s them that we will remember: his open-faced smile; her left-handed scowl; the giddy way they run through streets together. “How did we survive?” asks Gary after one particularly reckless episode, a question most of us have surely asked ourselves. Like all the best evocations of times past, Licorice Pizza has no answers – only an enraptured sense of awe that makes Anderson’s joyous film feel like a very personal memory.