We see in the New Year with good news. After a decade of films that grew increasingly obtuse, uptight and defensive - the near-masterpiece The Master, the interesting but necessarily involved Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, the faintly stuffy and fussy Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson loosens up once again with Licorice Pizza, a buoyantly entertaining coming-of-age pic set in the late 1970s. (The title - period slang for an album, and the name of an L.A. record shop - instantly recalls a strain of lusty yet melancholy teen romps from around the time the film is set: 1977's Peppermint Soda, 1978's Lemon Popsicle.) Anderson has returned to his native California and alighted upon a scenario that permits him to hang with old pals, and set a bunch of old tunes over a bunch of old memories, whether his own or someone else's. Elements of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love return to the mix, but the new film picks up most immediately from the promo videos Anderson shot for the band Haim, which allowed this filmmaker to let off steam and try new things between more demanding, less spontaneous productions. Alana Haim, the band's singer and keyboardist, has been promoted front and centre, cast as Alana (there's not even much strain when it comes to character names), a twentysomething photographer's assistant who becomes the focus of a younger man's affections. A precocious 15-year-old child actor, Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) proves persistent and a pain-in-the-behind, asking Alana out for dinner the first time they cross paths and thereafter continually circling back around to her. Yet he's also a trier and a dreamer, the kind of character American movies have long been drawn to (and drawn us to), and he doesn't slap Alana's ass the way her employer does. Gary knows he wants Alana, and that the attention of an older woman confers a maturity upon him he's preposterously keen to claim for himself. But as with most boys of his age - and here I speak from a position of some experience - he wouldn't really know what to do with her if she dared to reciprocate; the whole movie's premised on a funny little bind.
At two hours twenty, it's a big old movie, too: expansive in its field of study, driven above all else by Anderson's desire to let this material breathe. (Literally so at dinner, when Alana pulls Gary up on the audible heaviness of his respiration.) This relationship isn't going - cannot go - anywhere for several reasons, but that's exactly what makes it so funny; those critical puritans who've spent the past month fretting about the age gap have comprehensively failed to spot the joke. In the course of the movie, Gary and Alana will sleep together (fully clothed, on opposite sides of the bed), and late on we see them bickering over the Sunday papers in a diner like a real couple, but ultimately it's hard to know what's funnier: his blithe conviction something's bound to happen, or her flattered bemusement at his attentions. Sometimes, when stuck for anything else to do, she leads him on; more generally, she cuts him short and leaves him hanging. Either way, they appear to have all the time in the world, whether to indulge a fantasy like this or to work out what it is they actually represent to one another. School's out; the world awaits them both, and its potential is apparently infinite. Liberated from Phantom Thread's corsetry, Anderson keeps ducking into odd little sidebars, unruly pockets of leftfield activity, further expanding the frame: a glimpse or two of John Michael Higgins as the jovially racist owner of a Japanese restaurant, a diversion into Gary's shortlived career as a waterbed salesman, sporadic snapshots of Alana's homelife (her family played by the actual Haim clan, her sisters vamping as though they're still on stage), a sketch of what it might have been like to hear Todd Rundgren's "I Saw the Light" on the car radio while parked up eating burgers. In every location, Anderson seems happy, in a way he didn't much during Phantom Thread; any director who reaches for "Accentuate the Positive" as a cue must be in a good place spiritually. As to the question of why Anderson has been tempted back to the 1970s, and the moment of his childhood, the answer is surely obvious. Nostalgia is a means of avoiding having to think about the present or the future; you can see why pandemic audiences are responding to the film as they have.Even so, the fun probably shouldn't blind us completely to the fact Licorice Pizza represents Anderson's most conventional film to date. Its aim isn't to reinvent the wheel so much as revisit an earlier set of wheels - those that allowed 1970s American cinema to freewheel as it did. I suspect this project got the greenlight once Once Upon a Time in Hollywood burnt rubber at the box office; it, too, carries with it a whiff of film-bro indulgence, not to mention the first PTA shot to strike the eye as a thudding cliché: one from the POV of a camera attached to a car door being closed. Yet Anderson's lightness of touch far surpasses that of the heavyhanded Tarantino. Until the very end, this is a film without setpieces; it functions on an anecdotal level (as the best 70s coming-of-age films did), scattering life experience across the screen, then waiting for it to be hoovered up. It's a film of unusually memorable bitparts, of characters that evidently imprinted themselves on somebody's imagination: Harriet Sansom Harris as a veteran casting agent who gets the best close-ups in the picture (remember when directors took the time to really look at their actors?), Sean Penn as a lived-in Hollywood rake who takes a shine to Alana, Tom Waits as a director who restages Apocalypse Now with golfcarts, Bradley Cooper going full Bee Gee as a tailchasing Jon Peters. (The latter three have more fun than they've been allowed for some time.) The kids are alright, too. Hoffman bounds onto the screen as if he was born to be there, which - given his lineage - may well be the case; like his father, he's a shapeshifter, transforming over two hours from spotty swain to wannabe pinball magnate. (Gary's pinball tables are an unimprovable metaphor for the Licorice Pizza MO.) Haim clearly benefitted from being surrounded by people who plainly adore her, but she also gets in a few licks and shots of her own: her battle cry of "FUCK OFF, TEENAGERS" as she sprints to the incarcerated Gary's aid seems likely to linger long in the memory as 2022 plays itself out. She takes the wheel for Licorice Pizza's notional climax, which does with a gasless truck what Airport '79 did with Concorde, though it turns out there's even still time for Alana to get into politics (and Benny Safdie - of all people - as the great white hope of California liberalism), and for Gary to be spied as a gas station with his pals, pretending to jack off the jerrycans they've clamped between their thighs. Life is big enough to accommodate all of the above activity. It's about time our movies were flexible and generous enough to do likewise.
Licorice Pizza opens in cinemas nationwide today.