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Licorice Pizza

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (USA, Canada). Year of Release: 2021

Los Angeles. It must be 1973 as Nixon is on telly talking about Vietnam, Live and Let Die is on at the pictures, petrol stations are closed due to the oil crisis. Also, when you give someone your number they only have to remember 7 digits. Gary has just met the girl he’s going to marry. She may be 25 and he’s only 15 but that’s a mere detail that he’ll somehow overcome.

Gary constantly pesters Alana, the object of his affections, who repeatedly insists that they are not going to end up boyfriend and girlfriend. Nonetheless she ends up giving him that number, on the condition that he doesn’t use it that often. He doesn’t, but to add a new level of creepiness, when she gets a new boyfriend, he rings her, tells her parents that it’s the boyfriend, and then when Alana comes to the phone, he leaves a long silent pause before hanging up.

Now this might be fine if the aim of the film were to show what dicks teenage boys are, but I think we’re supposed to like Gary. Not only that, we’re supposed to believe that Alana is not completely deranged to spend her time with him. There’s a scene which made It to the trailer where she twice asks her friends “do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year old friends all the time?” Rather than let her know that, yes, it is very weird, they reassure her that it’s not strange at all.

Gary is played by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Now it might be just me – looking at some of the reviews it may well be just me – but Hoffman does not seem to have inherited a speck of his father’s charisma. We first meet him as a child actor whose vocabulary hovers halfway between infancy and adulthood. When he drawls that he’s been an entertainment since he was a kid I think we’re supposed to find it charming. I didn’t.

Gary is getting too long in the tooth to be a child actor, so he starts to diversify – first selling water beds, then capitalising of the decriminalisation of pinball tables in Southern California. Again, I presume that this is all done to make him more sympathetic, which may work for those parts of the middle classes who view an entrepreneur as being something other than a blood sucking parasite. I just couldn’t work up any excitement about his financial ventures.

Most of the time I found Licorice Pizza disjointed and a little pointless, but there was the odd occasion when you started to really question what the fuck was going on. Above all, why is that man talking to Japanese women with such an offensive accent. Now I know we’re supposed to be laughing at him not with him, and it isn’t Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s offensive. But the best you can say about it is it’s being done for a joke that was never really funny in the first place.

The age difference between Gary and Alana never rises above problematic, although the power relationship means that it never feels like abuse. Gary really does have the level of confidence that means that he thinks that, despite his lack of charm, he stands a chance with someone like Alana. She keeps fobbing him off, so she’s hardly leading him on, but I utterly failed to see why she would bother to hang out with someone who is not just a creep but also a juvenile.

There are some positives. As her namesake, musician Alana Haim has an effortless grace that Gary lacks. There’s also a section in the middle of the film where Sean Penn and Tom Waits do a little double act, and it’s always fun watching Tom Waits playing Tom Waits. But, like the other parts of this very episodic film, soon they are gone and we move onto someone else entirely.

Every time Paul Thomas Anderson brings out a new film, I get incredibly excited. I’m starting to realise that this is based on one film – Magnolia, which is one of the greatest films made by anyone ever. Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love were ok, though I rather fear that the reputation of the latter has been enhanced by it being the only film ever in which Adam Sandler was other than execrable (I hear he’s done one more good film since, but anyhoo).

I watched The Player and Phantom Thread riddled with boredom, but thinking that it was me who was at fault, because PTA is a genius, isn’t he? After all, he created Magnolia. I’m feeling more and more that it’s Magnolia that’s the exception among his films, and that he’s condemned to never come close to his past glory. But I’ll still get excited when his next film is imminent.

I write all this more in sorrow than in anger. Clearly there was something to be got out of this film, and not just from the raving critics. Every so often this evening, there was a wave of laughter in the cinema when I just struggled to know what it was that was so funny. Or there was a warm reaction to one of the characters who just left me cold. It happens. But I was so looking forward to this film that I just ended up feeling utterly disappointed.

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