Paul Thomas Anderson is a titan amongst contemporary filmmakers. For the past 25 years, he has been making masterpiece after masterpiece — from the hilarious and deeply dark portrait of the 1970s porn industry in “Boogie Nights” to the rich and epic character study of a 19th century oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood.” Anderson has shown that he can make a compelling movie about just about anything in just about any place, but there’s a certain hominess that comes with a Anderson film set in the director’s native San Fernando Valley. In Anderson’s newest film, “Licorice Pizza,” that familiar hominess is still there, but it feels somewhat hollowed out.
“Licorice Pizza” is really just a portrait of the Valley in the 1970s, as the 133-minute runtime doesn’t leave much plot to unpack. Whereas Anderson’s previous films, which are set in the Valley, use the area as a jumping-off point for more in-depth ideas, in “Licorice Pizza,” the Valley is simply what it is: a place for people to have fun without worrying about consequences.
The movie is a sequence of vignettes surrounding 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a twenty-something school photographer’s assistant. Alana placates Gary’s romantic advances and goes to dinner with him. Eventually, he somehow wraps her into his ever-changing business schemes. First, Alana chaperones Gary to a variety show in New York, then they become partners in Gary’s waterbed business, then they make advertisements for a mayoral candidate. The film hops from scene to scene just as randomly as it hops from plot point to plot point. The only constant is the Valley and the wacky escapades that take place within it.
But this film does not carry the weight that Anderson’s previous projects have. “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love” are Anderson’s three previous films set in the Valley. They each show Anderson’s love for his locale in their respective ways, but they also show a darkness to the area that makes each of those three films really pop. This characteristic darkness is missing in “Licorice Pizza” and the film feels incredibly flat as a result; a movie that is just good-vibes can only carry intrigue for so long. The movie does not need to take a dark turn per se, but it does need to evolve and develop into something it wasn’t to begin with, and “Licorice Pizza” doesn’t do that. The movie is painfully one-note for its entirety — a disappointment when compared to Anderson’s previous portraits of the Valley.
Due to the episodic nature of the plot, nothing that happens feels consequential in the grander scheme of the film. Alana and Gary are constantly falling out with one another, but none of those moments hold any weight, because it never takes more than three scenes for them to reunite. In one scene, Gary and Alana have to install a waterbed for producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) but Gary doesn’t like Peters’s attitude, so he floods the house. The humor of this scene is expertly crafted and wonderfully acted, but once it cuts away, it doesn’t matter that it happened.
And that’s the primary issue with the movie: Stuff just happens. Sometimes it's good stuff, sometimes it's not, but all in all, none of it really matters.
Anderson has not made a film set in the Valley since “Punch-Drunk Love,” (2002) and that era of Anderson’s filmmaking is shrouded in great layers of nostalgia. So the grand return to the setting is obviously a return met with great expectations. But in the end, while the film matches the aesthetic mastery of Anderson’s previous work, it fails to do much with it, instead leaving a beautiful empty shell of a film that could have been so much more.
You can tell the passion Anderson puts behind every shot, but ultimately the movie is an expertly crafted box with next to nothing inside. Featuring an original score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a soundtrack with songs by David Bowie and Paul McCartney, the film’s music perfectly complements its ’70s aesthetic. But the cinematographic merit amounts to very little.
Maybe this is all just an issue of expecting more than this movie was willing to give, but everything that makes a Paul Thomas Anderson film great is missing in this newest endeavor. “Licorice Pizza” is shallow, quazi-fun missing any depth or considerable intrigue. It drags on for a little too long and doesn’t say quite enough.