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The Current Debate: The Shagginess of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza”

Anderson’s journey through early 1970s California finds the director at his most laid-back. But is the film too shaggy for its own good?
Leonardo Goi
The real novelty of Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature, may have much less to do with the film’s locale and plot than its tone. Set in 1973 in the San Fernando Valley of the director’s childhood, the film chronicles the unlikely friendship-cum-maybe-romance between fifteen-year-old child actor and precocious entrepreneur Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson’s longtime collaborator and muse Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a young woman ten years his senior, Alana (Alana Haim, here crafting, like Cooper, a towering breakout turn). Sprawling and laid-back, replete with narrative cul-de-sacs, cameos, and oddball tangents, Licorice Pizza marks an abrupt rupture from the austere formalism of some of Anderson’s other works—think The Master or the more recent Phantom Thread. As Richard Lawson argues at Vanity Fair
"Over his brilliant, wandering career, Anderson has shown us plenty of scuzz and grime, alongside flashes of kinetic verve and primordial howl. But Licorice Pizza is, by some measure, his most deliberately pleasant film to date. It’s a lively, messy coming-of-age story which turns the clashing elements of that title into reflections of a certain youthful folly and daring, a penchant for base gross-out humor and big, revolutionary thinking. Licorice on pizza? Why not, when you’re young and feeling free?"
Much of the film’s vitality can be traced back to its meandering structure. Licorice Pizza, A. A. Dowd writes at the A.V. Club, “looks like the shaggiest and most rambling movie of Anderson’s esteemed, ever-evolving career.” There’s an episodic, organic quality to the film, dogging as it does Gary and Alana through their journey into adulthood, a picaresque chronicle that also features a small pantheon of grownups, eccentrics, VIPs, and sycophants. “Though the dialogue is too laden with well-placed zingers to have been improvised on-set,” Dana Stevens echoes at Slate, “there is a sense that the story is bubbling directly out of its creator’s brain, the freewheeling camera work (by Anderson and Michael Bauman) expressing his ideas as directly as a pen put to paper.” 
To be sure, the film’s amorphous shape can be a source of confusion, if not outright disappointment. The biggest issue with Licorice Pizza, Jeff Ewing argues at Forbes, is that the film’s segments “don’t organically conclude and build to a larger, grand ending as much as they interrupt and negate each other…” 
"At its core, Licorice Pizza is and feels like merely a long collection of scenes that fail to congeal into a solid, unitary work of art. It feels like stream-of-consciousness storytelling, with events happening just because and shifting abruptly just because, etc., wash, rinse, repeat. It captures the magical whimsy of youth well, and many of the individual scenes land, but the film as a whole is too long, too structurally erratic, and too shallow in its character development to really work."
What’s troubling here isn’t just that some of the film’s detours will be more incisive than others (that’s perhaps inevitable, as Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson admits). It’s that the more the focus widens to incorporate the many loopy tangents, David Rooney warns at The Hollywood Reporter, “the more baggy and shaggy Licorice Pizza begins to feel.” 
"Unless you feel a kinship with awkward adolescent boys madly crushing on young women out of their league, you might wish for a more robust skeleton on which to hang a two-hour-plus movie. […] And although it’s enjoyable to see Anderson kicking back and having fun after the meticulously manicured aesthetic of Phantom Thread, it often feels like it’s precisely the connective thread that’s the phantom here."
As for the film’s effortlessness, that too deserves careful spelling. “Movies that seem assured of how endearing they are usually end up being the least endearing of all,” Stephanie Zacharek reminds us at TIME; “Licorice Pizza feels pleased with how casual and effortless it is, which is the exact opposite of being casual and effortless.” It’s a point Nathan Lee further unpacks in an astute take over at Film Comment, noting that, unlike Godard or Tarantino, “Anderson’s self-consciousness is torn between his ambitions to propose Grand Things About the Human Condition and flex his technical chops.” This, to me, is a conflict Anderson has long wrestled with, and it brought to mind a comment Nick Pinkerton made in a most illuminating overview of the filmmaker’s oeuvre at The Point Magazine
"The boldness and sweep of Anderson’s aesthetic is connected to what can make his films such frustrating experiences. The talent and imagination are undeniable, and so too is the tiptoe exertion that accompanies their inevitable reach for the transcendent—a strain we register as viewers at precisely the moments when we should be feeling the transcendence itself."
Whether or not Licorice Pizza resolves that frustration (or further amplifies it) may ultimately depend on your receptiveness to the film’s free-floating rhythm. One can understand the urge to write off the film as a series of wistful vibes, but that’s an overly simplistic reading, not least because it threatens to translate the film’s shagginess into a kind of rose-tinted nostalgia. That’s a mood Licorice Pizza may well flirt with, but also complicates in some intriguing ways. Enamored as it is with the textures of its setting, the film is peppered with reminders of the era’s shortcomings: its sexism, racism, and homophobia. “Because Licorice Pizza is so light and freewheeling,”Adam Nayman suggests at The Ringer, 
"…there’s a temptation to praise it—or write it off—as an auteurist doodle, but the seams between the scenes are teeming with political critique. Whether flipping through the newspaper or glancing at televisions blaring speeches by a pre-impeachment Richard Nixon about the floundering American economy, Gary and Alana commiserate in a sense of shared alienation that ultimately begins to pull them apart."
Perhaps the kind of nostalgia the film gestures at isn’t so much a longing for a specific time and place, but a desire, Alison Willmore contends at Vulture, “to return to the uncertainty of the period of life its two characters straddle,” a wish based on the understanding, “one that can only come after the fact, that those feelings of being lost are a sort of privilege.” Seen in this light, the shagginess the film emanates is a fitting reflection of the angst and exuberance of its young, aimless drifters. One may accuse Anderson of getting lost in the film’s restless zig-zagging, of concocting a tale with little plot to hang on to. But inasmuch as it tries to sponge up the exhilaration and whimsy of youth, Licorice Pizza feels authentic, vivid, and joltingly alive. After all, as Justin Chang notes in his L.A. Times review, Anderson is the kind of artist... 
"…for whom the past is more than just an excuse for a nostalgia trip. With “Licorice Pizza” he has sifted through a haze of wildly embellished tales and half-forgotten memories — and pieced together something that feels more concrete, more achingly, tangibly real, than just about any American movie this year."
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.    

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