Licorice Pizza

Everyone’s favourite American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson serves up a slice of California sunshine to get the year going, a sloppy, greasy, gratifying yet slightly congealed pie of a picture.

It’s a summer coming-of-age movie, one of my favourite genres, set in 70s LA, where the director has previous form in the shape of Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice, films which share this latest’s easy, breezy, free-wheelin’ approach, pepped by eclectic soundtrack choices from Sonny & Cher to Suzi Quatro, Bowie, Gordon Lightfoot and Taj Mahal.

Pizza is about a young woman (played by pop star Alana Haim on her film debut) being pursued by a spotty, teenage actor called Gary Valentine who, as his name perhaps suggests, is a relentless and optimistic in his pursuit of a woman at least 10 years older. The romance/crush, such as it is, is episodic, picaresque, and takes in many scenes, some more successful than others.

PTA is a masterful director, no doubt about that. And his handling of atmosphere and his orchestration of sequences can bring a smile to a cinephile’s lips – you purr at the lightness of touch, the elegance of execution. There’s a scene here, at a teenage fair, set to Chico Hamilton’s six-minute Blue Sands, that makes you gasp at how it’s all done and brought together.

There’s a real sense of nostalgic fun in Licorice Pizza, and the film maker captures the breeze of young love, and the pain of growth. But it does meander and drift, literally careering out of control and downhill in one memorable sequence, pockmarked by cameos (Sean Penn, Tom Waits – both rather irritating; Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters, brilliant) – they come scattered like pizza toppings on a wobbly, cheesy base.

The film’s central relationship did make me feel queasy, the age gap, the persistence of Gary – it’s a bit creepy but if I’m honest, but it doesn’t feel that way, such is the wind-in-the-hair insouciance of the film making. It’s indulgent, I would say, and tries very hard to sweep you along for the ride, convinced you’ll give a shit about these two, even if I’m not sure everyone will, at least not all the time.

Compared to the director’s best work, this is a minor doodle, a sketch, a fast-food order, a strange mix, as the title might suggest. I enjoyed watching it very much – in the cold light of the next morning, though, I’d throw this pizza away rather than finish it for breakfast.