A friend and colleague, Vikram Murthi, tweeted something a few years ago about Paul Thomas Anderson that I think about all the time:
Professing no insider knowledge on what substances Anderson does or did enjoy, I nonetheless believe you can draw a similar conclusion by simply watching the films he’s made of late. Back in the 1990s, he was a hot-shit newcomer — the kind of guy who once claimed, “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock LaserDisc than you can in 20 years of film school.” Making a big show of his cinematic influences — Scorsese’s brash camera moves are all over Boogie Nights — he seemed like the next Tarantino, the sort of ambitious young auteur (alongside others like David O. Russell) who was going to remake American movies in their own image in the 21st century. He had a hip musician girlfriend in Fiona Apple, and he was pals with old-school Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise. His life was like the first act of those rise-and-fall dramas when everybody’s still high on their own greatness and think the good times will last forever. Then you wait for the crash.
Artists, if they’re lucky enough to sustain a career, eventually get older, maybe even mellow a little. Anderson, who turned 51 over the summer, has been in the process of chilling out for a good long while now. The edgy manner he used to convey on talk shows has been replaced by a calmer, sweeter disposition. The facial hair has grown gray. When Variety put him on the cover recently, the illustration envisioned him in a comfy hoodie. What kind of enfant terrible did this guy turn out to be?
All of that would be more worrisome if the man wasn’t still one of the best filmmakers working today. Anderson’s evolution into a normcore dad and committed romantic partner — his transformation into Mr. Domesticity — has brought with it a welcome artistic maturity that’s the furthest thing from boring. Maybe he hasn’t made a film lately as singular as There Will Be Blood or The Master — which is debatable depending on how you feel about Phantom Thread — but in their place have been films of incredible generosity and warmth, movies that seem to understand more about life and love than most of his peers’ do. (Tarantino’s most recent film, although his most melancholy, suggests he still can only process the world through the lens of other movies.) Of all those emerging late-1990s auteurs, no one’s in Anderson’s class. He keeps going doing his particular road, making his increasingly idiosyncratic works. In the process, he’s shown the rest of us how to grow old gracefully without becoming an embarrassment in the process.
Licorice Pizza is his first feature since Phantom Thread, and it feels, in a weird way, like a continuation of that movie’s core concepts. Once again, an impossible couple try to figure out their odd dynamic. Once again, it’s never entirely clear if these two people really ought to be together. And yet once again Anderson makes the case that all of us on the outside can never fully appreciate what strange alchemy binds two souls — and that maybe it’s not our business anyway. If it makes them happy, what concern is it of ours? It’s stupid to draw conclusions about filmmakers’ personal lives from their movies, but Licorice Pizza sure feels like the work of a guy who knows how good he’s got it. The film is a salute to seizing the happiness you can find, knowing that it might not hang around forever.
Anderson’s screenplay chronicles two young people living in the Valley in 1973. There’s Gary (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper), who’s about 16, and there’s Alana (Alana Haim, part of the band Haim with her sisters Este and Danielle), who’s in her mid-20s. As soon as Gary spots Alana, he won’t stop talking to her until she agrees to go out with him. She doesn’t take him seriously — who is this kid? — but because she finds him such a peculiar guy, eventually she gives in. Nothing’s going to happen — she doesn’t see him as boyfriend material (and, don’t forget, he’s underage) — but on a lark she then accompanies him to the East Coast, where he’s going to appear on a variety show. (Oh, Gary is an actor, too.) And since Alana needs a job — she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up — she gets roped into some entrepreneurial schemes he has. (It’s the 1970s, so waterbeds and pinball machines are big.) And from there, they keep circling one another. They’re not lovers, but there’s something there that’s more than friendship. If they tried talking about it, that might ruin the whole thing.
Lots of us can recall that one pure true love we had when we were growing up — the one that’s all the sweeter because they didn’t see us in the same way — and Alana is that for Gary. She doesn’t lead him on, but simply by being pals with Gary, she gives him hope — hope that’s probably misplaced. And yet their dynamic is hardly one-sided. Gary may be younger, but he’s surer of himself than she is, and soon he’s helping her get acting work and teaching her how to be more assertive. He loves Alana, but he also wants her to see herself the way he sees her. There’s no sad-sack doormat in Gary, though: As far as he’s concerned, it’s just a matter of time before she falls for him. After all, he knows how great he is.
Middle-aged filmmakers telling stories about adolescent characters — and remember that Anderson himself grew up in the Valley, although not during the same time period — have a tendency to be smug or patronizing, romanticizing a pivotal moment in young people’s development when they’re figuring out what the hell to do about their hormones. Refreshingly, Licorice Pizza is free of such tendencies, an indication that Anderson has a healthy perspective on his bygone youth. He’s not chasing it in Licorice Pizza, but he’s not contemptuous of it, either. That probably explains why the movie is his breeziest — he taps into his characters’ giddy rush of self-discovery, letting them live their lives and make their youthful mistakes. It’s unusual to see a PTA film that’s this openhearted.
In that Variety profile, Anderson said he wasn’t necessarily seeking to make something lighter in tone, just that he’d been working on a few more somber projects that fizzled out. But when he was doing press for Phantom Thread, he talked about the joy he had being surrounded by his children and his longtime partner Maya Rudolph, who shows up in Licorice Pizza, only the second time she’s made an appearance in one of his movies. (Judging by the end credits, I think a few of their children have cameos, too.) He talks about being a guy who now goes to bed around 9 — that’s p.m. — and wakes up around 5. He digs stuff like Venom: Let There Be Carnage, partly because his kids are of an age where they’re into Marvel movies. God, does he sound like a dad.
It might have been hard to imagine this shift from the guy behind Boogie Nights and Magnolia, which were showy, big-swing films — the kind of arrogant work very much in keeping with a man, as Apple talked about last year, who could be a nightmare when doing coke. But even back then, he was a storyteller interested in how people find community out in the world. This century, love has often been the underlying theme of his films. Punch-Drunk Love was his terrific first attempt at this notion that infatuation can take different forms — and it only matters if you and your potential soulmate are on the same strange wavelength. There Will Be Blood is all about the perils of a man so self-absorbed and driven that he cannot make room for anyone else in his heart. What is The Master if not a tale of two straight men who feel inextricably drawn to one another, their pairing possibly resulting in their mutual destruction? Inherent Vice, a pot movie if ever there was one, follows Joaquin Phoenix’s private eye, who’s hung up on the gal who walked out on him. And then there’s Phantom Thread, a gloriously twisted romance about an egotist who gets cut down to size by a lover who poisons him. There’s nothing normcore about these films, and yet there’s often something wonderfully old-fashioned at the center — the idea that we all need our special someone.
Licorice Pizza is about a lot of things. It dabbles in politics and social change and the film business and how deeply weird it is to grow up in a place where you can run into random celebrities when you go out to eat. It’s a movie that’s alive with possibilities, but it’s not fueled by that adrenaline-crazed mania that powered his earliest films. In the best possible way, Licorice Pizza has nothing to prove, and so you watch Anderson take chances and go down some unexpected byways, sometimes successfully, other times not. But even some of the weirder moments can have incredible surprises in store, shifting this modest love story into nearly thriller territory. This is a loose movie, almost as if its maker wasn’t fussed about trying to knock out another masterpiece and, instead, decided to have a little fun. That can happen when artists get older and complacent, but Licorice Pizza doesn’t feel phoned-in. If anything, he’s as ambitious as ever, except now he’s less invested in self-consciously wowing us. Maybe switching to pot will do that to you. Maybe recalibrating your priorities will, too.
I’ve long admired artists who have demonstrated that getting older and settling down doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Partly, that interest is selfish: I don’t think it’s any mistake that the 15 years (and counting) that I’ve been married have been the most productive and fulfilling I’ve had as a writer and a human being, almost as if finding the right person has helped clarify my sense of myself and what I want out of life. And so I seek confirmation from musicians or filmmakers who seem to have done the same.
So perhaps not surprisingly, every time I read a Paul Thomas Anderson interview, I feel a kinship to how he’s structured his life around a commitment to cultivating contentment. That sounds so trite, and yet that simple pleasure is so powerful — and so hard to retain once it’s been lost. Anderson has been telling us this in his movies for years, although perhaps not as overtly as he has in Phantom Thread and Licorice Pizza. Masterpieces are difficult things because they’re not entirely in your control — ultimately, other people tell you what they are. But happiness is something you have complete say over — and it’s a process, not a destination. Alana and Gary are just starting that process in Licorice Pizza. Anderson hopes we all are, too.