In what is arguably the best film of 2021, Paul Thomas Anderson has cooked up both a “coming and going” of age story that is remarkably becoming, except there’s no cumming.
I didn’t get around to seeing Licorice Pizza until about a month after it hit theaters, but as I expected, it was well worth the wait. It’s bold, delightful, and delectably disturbing.
It tells the story of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a lower-rung child star in the 1970’s and his new found obsession on two lean legs, Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The two develop a playful, tongue-in-cheek chemistry that manifests itself in radiant and lustful momentum the second they appear on screen together. Only one problem – he’s 15, she’s 26. Oops.
All that considered, they can’t seem to hinder the sensual magnetism growing between them. Without giving in to anything more than just friendship, they start spending a significant amount of time together, all the while toying with the pulses of shame surging through their loins.
The result is an erotic cold war that’s almost as confusing as it is exquisitely charming. Really, you’ve never seen taboo look so precious. It’s not quite the darkened cautionary tale that is Lolita, but you get the idea.
What I want to talk about most is how the film constructs a simple, whimsical situation and twists in a subtle cyclone of moral chaos without crossing any ethical lines. Despite the insatiable urge to do so, Gary and Alana never actually give in to their desires.
Every time you think they’re going to, there’s some sort of last second recoil that saves the day from a statutory apocalypse. Then, when you look back, you can’t recall whether you were begging them not to do it or praying that they’d say fuck it and throw their reservations to the wind. It’s a weird cycle of push and pull that’s somehow hotter (not to mention safer) to watch than actual sex.
Licorice Pizza manages to construct the entirety of its intimacy factor on this exact thing. Seriously, you couldn’t cut this sexual tension with a fucking chainsaw; and even if you could, you wouldn’t dare. Lingering eyes, trembling fingertips, and the feeble space between two quivering pairs of lips seem to keep us intimately engaged in ways that a traditional on-screen romance cannot.
Without ever actually declaring an official courtship, Gary and Alana undergo all the stress and bullshit antics that predominate the downside of a relationship: cold shoulders, jealous stares, feigned indifference toward one another, etc… all the while straining for a phantom vantage point of understanding that is seemingly lost in the years between them.
Gary relishes in the delights of adolescence while striving for the maturity required to satisfy Alana’s adult needs, and the latter is caught somewhere between wanting to be a grown up and involuntarily daydreaming about fun-loving Gary and his juvenile entourage. It’s a touchy conundrum that’s somehow more innocent and charming than it is indignant and forbidden.
Everything that makes you fall in love with these two happens in spite of who they are in relation to one another, and in some ways who they are as individuals. There’s no nice way to put it… Gary and Alana are NOT good-looking people.
Really, they’re not. One is a redheaded teenage twerp who is barely done going through puberty and the other has a gap between her teeth that you could throw a fucking frisbee through (among other blatant imperfections).
All the same, we get bombarded with hyper close-up shots of them throughout the film, and little by little, their flaws seem to look less and less like flaws and more like graceful, unconventional little fixtures of beauty. It’s a transformation that you don’t even realize is happening, and that’s exactly what I loved so much about this movie: it catches you off guard on all fronts.
Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a clever narrative of bliss, lust, innocence, and angst between lovers that, in the perplexing absence of actual lovemaking, fortifies itself as one of the greatest romance stories of our generation. Gary and Alana are two great things that by all natural rights shouldn’t go together, but oddly enough, just work when they become one. Kind of like, say… licorice and pizza?