What is a master? A rank, a fearsome position; a wide-shot, an original track. It’s also the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth and strangest film, the highlight in a career of exquisitely wrought oddities, the latest of which, Licorice Pizza (2021) has been nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. You imagine that by now Anderson is used to this sort of thing: he is, to date, the only filmmaker in history to have won director prizes at each of the three major international film festivals, Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. The New York Times recently named 2007’s There Will Be Blood the film of the century. Twitter, at times, can seem to be one giant clearinghouse for Phantom Thread memes (“fucking chic?!”)
Indeed, there is little that can be said about Anderson’s work that hasn’t been said before, and breathlessly: his intertwined obsessions with hucksterism and the state of California; his astonishing command of cinematic technique; his eccentric sound design and uncanny use of music. Every one of his films since There Will Be Blood has been a period piece and Anderson’s re-creations of bygone eras are never anything short of meticulous: these films delight in the resurrection of forgotten objects cultural, linguistic, sartorial. His films are often described as mesmerizing, intoxicating, and it’s true: they produce an effect that’s not unlike the hypnosis practiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd on the dupes in his cult in The Master. You give yourself over to the hands of a master – and you try not to blink when he leads you to uncomfortable places.
Licorice Pizza is one of Anderson’s sunniest films and also one of his worst. It coasts: we follow two would-be lovers, the 25-year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and the 15-year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), as they chase their feelings for each other up and down the San Fernando Valley. To the extent that there’s a narrative, it has to do with the ebb and flow of their non-romance as they apply themselves to a series of hustles: stints as actors, mattress salesmen, pinball salesmen, political volunteers, and attachés to two 1970s Hollywood figures, both played by actual Hollywood stars, Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.
The narrative is episodic and some of its set-pieces and cameos work better than others. An elaborate scene at a fair is set up only for Gary to be arrested without reason – and then released. Penn and Cooper appear in the narrative only to disappear minutes later. As he’s matured as a filmmaker, Anderson seems to have grown bored with the set dressing of the conventional Western narrative. His stories now prefer to leave open and ambiguous what they would have resolved at an earlier stage in his career. The Master represents the most effective use of this kind of narrative entropy. It is a film about trauma, about deception and a kind of willed national amnesia, and the drift of its storytelling – its elisions, its thorniness and many asymmetries – is of a piece with its haunted characters.
Here, the looseness just reads as laziness. Licorice Pizza, like The Master, the film it most closely resembles, is about a romance between two people who seem not to belong together: one, a wayward drifter; the other, a puffed-up huckster. But there are a couple of notable differences between these two films. First, the teenaged Hoffman is, it’s fair to say, not at the level of the late, great Hoffman (who is?). Second, unlike Licorice Pizza, in The Master. we are not required to love or even remotely like the couple at its center.
As for the filming techniques, Anderson is a great artist of the close-up, but although his camera in The Master resists distance, it also resists infatuation. The lighting in that film is often cadaverous; it has a weird, mortuary intimacy – it’s like John Cassavetes by way of the television series Forensic Files. This is not the case with Licorice Pizza. Here the faces are suffused in golds and soft reds; even actors’ pimples look like beauty marks.
Such facial blemishes would seem to track, given a more innocent story – but these are not innocents. Alana (Alana Haim) is 25 – or maybe 28; it’s hinted that she’s lying about her age – and there is something sad, and strange, in her involvement with a 15-year old boy, a pathos that the film never seems interested in exploring. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), meanwhile, oozes with unearned confidence. He bosses his friends around, treats women like they are lowly employees, and proudly states that the world revolves around him. In other words, Gary behaves like any one of the male characters from Anderson’s gallery of sociopaths – think Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, or Frank T.J. Mackey in 1999’s Magnolia – except, in this case, he’s slotted into the role of romantic hero.
How much slack do we cut a teenage boy? How much slack do we cut Anderson? He has demonstrated, throughout his 30-odd year career, his love for a particular kind of teenaged-boy humor (there is an essay to be written on his Freudian fixation on cocks. Consider: The House of Woodcock, Tail-o-the-Cock, Dirk Diggler’s ‘massive cock’, “respect the cock”, etc.) And on that note, there are ‘jokes’ in Licorice Pizza that fall completely, horribly flat.
Jon Peter’s (Bradley Cooper) assistant Steve (Ryan Heffington) is one of them: a gay caricature, a walking cartoon of manners and masochism. Worse: there’s Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a minor white character based on the real-life owner of the Mikado, the first Japanese restaurant in Valley Village, California. In the film, Jerry is married to first one and then another Japanese woman, neither of whom speaks English, but to whom Jerry speaks in an exaggerated, demeaning, faux-Japanese accent, à la Mickey Rooney in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Nobody in Licorice Pizza questions Jerry about this accent: not the white protagonists, nor Jerry’s wives, who endure his racist language silently, like statues of humiliation.
When asked, recently, to defend these scenes, Anderson fell on the crutch that they were true to the period, and then went on to say that he himself has a “Japanese mother-in-law” and that this “happens all the time”. Maybe it does. What I can tell you is that these scenes add nothing to an already bloated and aimless film and that at the Boston theater my boyfriend and I attended, most of the people were howling at the screen.
The expectations that precede any new Anderson film approach a kind of religious frenzy. Partly this is due to the rarity of his product in the marketplace. With cinematic presentation disrupted by the rise of streaming, and further hampered by the pandemic, the commercial window for a filmmaker like him – the much-lamented ‘mid-budget director’ – becomes narrower by the day. Anderson’s films become more outlier, artifacts from an earlier phase of the industry: a vintage label that the studios cultivate for awards consideration. As it stands, he is probably one of the last of the Hollywood film auteurs who is able to dictate, like so few other filmmakers can, when his film is released, in what format it is released, and in which theaters – before it gets dumped onto streaming platforms, a pearl in a sea of crap.
Indeed, his creative control is enviable: he casts who he wants to cast, lights his own films, edits his own trailers, decides the final cut. “We will have more information about [Licorice Pizza] when he tells us what it is,” said MGM executive Michael DeLuca. Anderson is one of the very few directors who enjoy this kind of autonomy, and it is unlikely that this is because he’s such a reliable commercial bet. Four of his nine feature films failed to recoup the cost of their production budget, let alone marketing spend, and it’s likely that Licorice Pizza will be the fifth. His most profitable film, There Will Be Blood, grossed only $40 million domestically; by comparison, Spider-Man: No Way Home grossed about $122 million on its first day. What accounts for his freedom?
“God tier,” wrote David Ehrlich, chief film critic of Indiewire. “A style of prodigious grandeur,” wrote David Denby of The New Yorker. “Like Orson Welles,” said Ben Affleck, at the 2013 Golden Globes. If Paul Thomas Anderson earned his reputation on the power of his films, he’s maintained it with the help of the sycophancy that surrounds him: the acclaim of the predominately male critics and directors who serve as the custodians of Hollywood taste. This kind of hyperbole seems reserved solely for Anderson.
In a global cinema of equally gifted filmmakers – Lucretia Martel, Terence Davies, Tsai Ming-Liang, Lynne Ramsay, to name a few – it’s worth asking why Anderson continues to vacuum up so much rapturous praise, even when he puts out duds like Licorice Pizza and 2014’s Inherent Vice. Critic Armond White, writing about There Will Be Blood, may have accidentally struck gold when he called Anderson “the small white hope for Gen Xers wishing there was a Griffith, Stroheim, Ford, Wyler, Vidor or Stevens among them.”
Although Anderson’s films are about confidence-men, hucksters, and showmen, the films themselves are self-consciously Great American spectacles, epics projected on 70 mm film, even when the subject matter – as in Licorice Pizza – hardly seems to merit it. He is at his best when he can see through his characters’ vanity, their pomp and self-importance – as in Phantom Thread – or when he can show you, unsparingly, the fraudulence and damage underlying the myths of supremacy – as in The Master and There Will Be Blood. Otherwise, he can seem, depressingly, like an overgrown American teenager, getting high on his own supply, willfully ignorant of the world around him. Kinda like Gary’s little world in Licorice Pizza where he really is not the center of the world, after all, but only a little prick.