by John Larkin
Paul Thomas Anderson has always injected an offbeat sensibility into his films that usually make them fascinating to discover and gives them the clout that makes him a standout auteur. His best films have a captivating premise and are loaded with juicy characters played by today's greatest actors. The actors harness the quirkiness in his writing and help turn the material into something indelible for the audience. Unfortunately in LICORICE PIZZA Anderson is working with less than stellar starting material that he never steers into something substantive, making it one of the worst films of the year.
The film begins abruptly on Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a cocky 15 year old TV actor who starts flirting with Alana (Alana Haim) a 25 year old working with the photography company hired to take class photos at Gary's school. Cooper Hoffman's acting is a far cry from his father, the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, with his performance falling flat throughout the entire film. Gary is almost instantly unlikeable and Anderson oddly treats him like a man in his late 40's. He frequents Hollywood restaurants where he's greeted by the maître d' like he's Steve McQueen and somehow starts his own businesses selling waterbeds and opening a pinball arcade despite only being 15 years old! His relationship with Alana only makes thing stranger as she's ten year older but somehow finds Gary enticing. She plays a game of hot and cold with Gary throughout the entire film popping in and out of his life and we never really understand who she is as a person. We're also never clear with what the characters are really doing. Is Gary still trying to act? Is he loved by others? hated? Is Alana into him now? What the hell is Sean Penn talking about? It's all very unclear and it becomes a struggle to keep up or even care.
Haim's role is juicier then Hoffman's but because of the randomness of PTA's writing, her performance often feels forced. It may be unfair to blame the actors in this as PTA has concocted the most bizarre and absurd screenplay of his career. Make no mistake, this is not an audience friendly movie. At times it almost feels like an ANTI-MOVIE, as if PTA is purposefully trying to turn us off to the whole affair. The film is laced with moments intended to be amusing that fall awkwardly flat. There are entire sequences that make no sense and get no explanation, and tell us nothing significant about the characters to draw us in. In short, the story is a meandering mess.
It's hard not to imagine that the overwhelmingly positive feedback for this film from a slew of critics are purely based on the fact that this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film. How I would love to see certain films released with us not knowing who directed it. Only then can one get a truly subjective reaction to the material in the current media landscape.
As a lifelong PTA fan, I was so let down by this film. I kept hoping things would turn around and while there are moments where things start to get interesting (enter Bradley Cooper) they quickly vanish into the cinespehere only to be followed up by something nonsensical and disappointing.
It's worth noting that this film feels like a mix of Anderson's other better films but it reminds one that not everything mixes well. If you tossed BOOGIE NIGHTS, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE AND INHERENT VICE into a blender the unpalatable concoction it would produce would be something that tastes like LICORICE PIZZA.