Licorice Pizza: the first summit of the 2022 cinema year [critique]

Paul Thomas Anderson signs his most accessible and luminous work, telling an intoxicating romance in California in 1973.

The 70s, the San Fernando Valley, a boy who meets a girl… Paul Thomas Anderson, wouldn’t he have already made that film? With Licorice Pizza, the director is clearly back on the land of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, his “San Fernando Valley trilogy”, named after the gigantic Los Angeles suburb where he grew up, separated from the rest of the city by the Hollywood Hills. PTA returns to its first love, therefore, after having traveled a lot in time and space, from California at the beginning of the XXth century (There Will Be Blood) in London fashion of the fifties (Phantom Thread), through the traumatized America of post-WWII (The Master) and that, smashed, of the post-68 (Inherent Vice). Long aesthetic journey during which he will have definitively got rid of the overwhelming influence of his masters (Altman, Kubrick, Scorsese) and established himself as one of the great sphynxes of contemporary US cinema. The first beauty of Licorice Pizza is to see him return to the world of his youth, of his apprenticeship, rich in the stylistic height of view that is now his, and rid of what plagued his first feature films, this desire to tighten the muscles, to show his strength. This ninth opus proclaims the desire to be like a first film, like a first time, a new work of youth, since its argument (a romance a little weirdo who starts in high school on the day of the class photo) until her (fabulous) headlining beginner duo: Alana Haim, a musician that PTA had already directed in music videos but who had never acted in comedy , and Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is making his screen debut.

Licorice Pizza will therefore be a film of pure pleasure, far from the sometimes intimidating metaphysical puzzles of which its author had ended up making a specialty, a seventies stroll giving the impression of having been shot with your hands in your pockets, a dreamy smile on your lips . The argument? Boy meets girl. He, Gary Valentine, is a teenage actor, smooth talker, a little show off. She, Alana Kane, in her twenties, is a little too old for him, but will fall under the spell of his patter, while taking pleasure in standing up to him. There followed adventures that were both anecdotal and totally Homeric, derisory and grandiose – like almost everything that happened at those ages. Gary embarks on the waterbed business, a booming business in patchouli-scented LA, then tries to help Alana break into the movie business, before the two find themselves working for the countryside. election of a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles. That’s all ? Ah, yes: Gary is also going to open a pinball room. And California will be hit hard by the effects of the first oil shock. One will recognize in the apparently headless or tailless unfolding of this story Anderson’s taste for a form of light surrealism, the absurd poetry of a stoner and Pynchon admirer, which connects bizarre situations as one goes from rooster to rooster. ‘donkey. Licorice Pizza follows childish logic and takes place in a world where adults are almost absent – as if Peter Pan’s Neverland had been relocated to the suburbs of Hollywood. And when the old folks come on the scene, they’re usually shown as clownish figures, or bigger than life, unreal anyway – extraordinary appearances by Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Bradley Cooper in fossil show biz. It’s a world where whizz-kids, smarter-than-average kids rule the roost and make up their own rules. Alana and Gary will take turns trying their hand at free enterprise,entertainment and politics: a sort of trilogy of the great American occupations, Californian promises, but considered here as passads, simple entertainments teenage. As if the American dream, the one after which most of the characters in PTA run until they go mad, were really just a game.

Reconstructing here the landscape of his childhood (he was three years old in 1973), directing the son of his deceased favorite actor, inviting his own children and his wife Maya Rudolph to the screen, multiplying the nods to Hollywood dynasties (appearances of Spielberg’s daughter and Leonardo DiCaprio’s dad!), Paul Thomas Anderson does not necessarily sign his Once upon a time… in Hollywood. The secret key of Licorice Pizza may be biographical, intimate, but the film is much less burdened by the melancholy of a vanished world than the Tarantino. On the contrary: it seems filled with the simple joy of being able to reconstitute it, then explore it at leisure. Cultural references, above all, are much less overwhelming than at QT. There are certainly plenty of winks here for pop encyclopedists, a mess of memorabilia, cinema marquees announcing the latest James bond… We will undoubtedly appreciate the film even more if we recognize Jon Peters (producer, hairstylist for stars and ex-husband of Barbra Streisand) behind Bradley Cooper’s outfit, if we look at the character played by Sean Penn as a distorting mirror of William Holden, or if we’ve heard of Lucille Ball or politician Joel Wachs. But everything is done in such a relaxed way that the pleasure is never parasitized by the avalanche of citations. Like this title, Licorice Pizza. Originally, it designates a chain of record stores from the 70s and 80s, in which we imagine that PTA would go shopping when he was a teenager. But we don’t see a single one of these glorious stalls in the film. “Licorice Pizza” is not a sign, not a code name for happy few, but a state of mind. It points to the unreal world of memories, this feeling that anything can happen and that summer might never end. A teenage belief that few movies have captured as gloriously as this one.

By Paul Thomas Anderson. With Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn… Duration 2h13. Released on January 5, 2022

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