LICORICE PIZZA (MGM Studios)
It's difficult to make sense of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film Licorice Pizza. On the one hand, it's a vivid and accurate reenactment of the look, feel and sound of 1973 America, in all its unpleasantness, tackiness, innocence, sweetness and silliness. On the other hand, it's a rambling series of many events that don't quite make logical or narrative sense. Trafficking in the typically unrelated realms of child actors, the burgeoning water bed industry, regional politics, the overdue legalization of pinball, the oil embargo, the emergence of Japanese cuisine in America, middle class Jewish suburbia and random celebrity eccentricity, the only connective tissue is the discordant culture of the subsection of Southern California known as "The Valley."
Unlike another film that brilliantly captured this same year, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, Licorice Pizza (named after the chain of Southern California record stores that was eventually bought out by Sam Goody's, and photographed and ideally screened on celluloid), feels like an elaborate home movie, invented as it was being filmed (although it is frequently made clear this not at all the case). It feels like it was written from a fevered dream, with characters doing things that defy recognizable reality. And yet there are many memorable, and occasionally hilarious, moments, especially those involving Christine Ebersole playing Lucille Doolittle, a character based on Lucille Ball who presents a musical number entitled "Yours, Mine and Ours" from a fictional movie called Under One Roof, which is based on the real movie Yours, Mine and Ours, an appearance of a local FM deejay based and named after the real Los Angeles disc jockey B. Mitchell Reid who was previously a fast talking New York AM disc jockey, a version of William Holden called Jack Holden (played by Sean Penn) who desires, for no logical reason, to recreate a scene from his movie The Bridges of Toko-San (based on the William Holden film The Bridges of Toko-Ri) and, of course, Bradley Cooper doing a near demented impersonation of Hollywood hairdresser turned big shot Jon Peters.
Much of this story doesn't add up and there is persistent disregard for plausibility, and this seems to be entirely the point, even if a lot of it is factually accurate. What also seems to be the point is the de-glamorization of nostalgic reminiscence. (The story, such as it is, is based on the teenage memories of film producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman for whom the main character is named). Most of the actors appear to be without make up, the lighting is often harsh and the décor and clothing (emblematic of this period in our society) is less than aesthetically pleasing, if not garish. Such choices, along with the indulgent running time of 133 minutes, seem designed to make this movie as "in your face" as possible. Still, if you have a strong connection to, or a healthy curiosity about, this era, or if you're a fan of Anderson's other work set in the San Fernando Valley, it is certainly worth checking out. It will bring back memories you did and/or did not have and you may find this depiction of chaotic adolescent angst poignant, or at least amusing. - Bruce Bernstein
Mr. Bernstein is a bon vivant, a man about town, a connoisseur of cinema and various other art forms in danger of extinction, writer, filmmaker, and a record collector!