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This week for “Close-Up with Camenker”,  Zach reviews . . . LICORICE PIZZA! (January 14, 2022)

Click here for the blurb and showtimes for LICORICE PIZZA!

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, LICORICE PIZZA, has garnered a great deal of praise as well as its fair share of mixed reviews. To many fans of “PTA,” this is no surprise as his movies are often met with two extremes of feeling.

Personally, I really liked LICORICE PIZZA and was a fan of its vignette-like style of upbeat goofiness, a deviation from PTA’s last movie PHANTOM THREAD, which was pretty but… Well… Just weird. 

LICORICE PIZZA follows 15-year-old child star Gary Valentine as he comes of age in the San Fernando Valley during the 1970s. Along the way, he meets an eclectic cast of characters who partake in his growing up, sometimes humorously and other times not so humorously. From the start, he has puppy eyes for a 25-year-old photographer named Alana Kane, who is also coming into her own.

No matter how you feel about this picture, you have to give PTA credit for his casting choices of Gary and Alana, played by Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim respectively. These two young performers, both making their feature film debuts, shine brightly and perfectly hit the themes that a coming-of-age picture should.

Hoffman is the son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent collaborator of PTA who gets a little homage right as the picture starts. Haim is the youngest in a trio of LA-based sisters/singers from the rock group Haim, whose talent abounds beyond the musical scene. Here, she is joined by her real-life sisters and parents, who take on the same roles associated with her character. They are great fun to watch and add to the film through the portrayal of their Judaism.

I find it really cool that the character of Alana wears her Judaism on her sleeve and that it becomes a part of the film’s narrative in a unique manner. While it’s a subtle part of the picture, it’s a neat thing to see. Additionally, as the character of Alana grows alongside Gary, she has high hopes for a career in movies herself. 

The film makes clear that the 70s was a time when the standards for American actresses were changing. For example, Barbra Streisand had won her Oscar for Funny Girl in 1969, kicking off her meteoric rise to stardom. Alana’s character is definitely a young woman of the mold who sees herself a bit in Streisand and has high hopes for her future in the post-Studio Era of Hollywood where you don’t have to check all the boxes in a neat and orderly fashion as stars of the past did.

PTA’s focus on the pop cultural lens of the early 70s is what I appreciate the most here. I can understand how some have felt this doesn’t translate into the story and that it perhaps lacks substance, but I personally don’t feel it needs substance. The movie is meant to be both fun and funny, evocative of the pluses and minuses of growing up. It reads in an escapist way for me during our current pandemic era as I was able to go in, watch the two hour film, and not really have to think deeply. Sure, I still read into the film’s themes and ideas, but I do that with just about everything! What I mean here is that you can get away without reading into it and still enjoy the piece.

Licorice Pizza' Movie's Asian Racism: A Close Reading – The Hollywood ReporterIt’s really clear that PTA takes deep inspiration from Robert Altman, a director to whom he dedicated his 2007 film THERE WILL BE BLOOD and whom he seems to idolize. Altman’s style is similarly vignette-focused and his characters are ones who come together in unexpected ways that don’t always cohere. PTA is a bit more thorough in wrapping up loose ends though.

Aesthetically, PTA has his style down pat. The music, scenery, physical “look” of the era, and fashion are on point throughout the film.

I know that some have been bothered by the film’s depiction of the 10 year age gap between Gary and Alana, as well as some of the stereotypes of the era. I think the words “of the era” are crucial to remember here. PTA is focused on a time that is now half a century in the past and as he hearkens back to “another time, another place,” we can acknowledge that certain things have changed for the better in a lot of ways.

Personally, regarding the age gap, I did not read into it all that much as Gary and Alana fall into what I would deem more a “puppy love” throughout the majority of the film. Without giving too much away, there is no serious relationship that develops. I saw their connection as one of commonality while they come into their own and share a mix of similar and different feelings that come with growing up. I can understand why some would be bothered by this, but I see the piece as a story of young love and friendship.

Overall, the film was an escape for me and one that I could embrace deeply as 2021 wrapped up and 2022 still doesn’t look as bright as we may have hoped. It seems audiences have felt the same based on Red River’s success with screening LICORICE PIZZA, which I suspect will do well this awards season, too! Stay tuned for my next column, which will likely feature some thoughts on this unusual awards season and another review, of course!


Stay tuned for Volume XVI of “Close-Up with Camenker,” which will return on Friday, January 28. 


Click here to learn more about Zach Camenker!

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