Why Licorice Pizza should win the best picture Oscar

Kicking off our annual series ahead of the Academy Awards, the Guardian’s chief film critic cheerleads for Paul Thomas Anderson’s delirious, delectable retro comedy

It’s agonisingly close, but this year Paul Thomas Anderson gets the gold, with co-producers Sara Murphy and Adam Somner, for his delirious, delectable comedy Licorice Pizza. (Wait! Is it a comedy?)

I think I would watch it every day, twice a day, if I thought I could get away with it. The sheer pleasure of this film is somehow not directly connected with performances, or narrative, or genre (the genre here is almost impossible to pin down) but with its pure texture, which is sensual and sublime. It’s a film which has, in Chuck Berry’s words: no particular place to go, but there’s joy in the journey, the sheer film-making bravura. Tellingly, one of the key scenes concerns a truck which has to be steered and guided downhill without gasoline: the movie has the same miraculous freewheeling touch.

The performances are a miracle in themselves. Anderson has taken two complete movie-acting newcomers and found them to be complete naturals. Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays Gary Valentine, a fast-talking high-schooler and child actor in 1973 California with iffy skin who realises that his showbiz career is on the skids now that he’s getting bigger and so decides to sell waterbeds as a side-hustle. And he’s also fallen in love with a young woman who works as assistant to the school photographer — and this is the wonderful Alana Haim, of the pop band Haim, for whom Anderson has already directed videos.

She is amused and exasperated and in spite of herself intrigued by Gary’s attention and also, from her position in the studio audience, impressed by what turns out to be Gary’s final professional child-actor appearance: his New York press tour for the imaginary family movie Under One Roof: Alana had been persuaded to be his travel chaperone — a truly dysfunctional beginning to their romance, or business partnership, or whatever it is. Their relationship bops and pinballs around, ricocheting off various minor characters: a washed-up movie star based on William Holden played by Sean Penn, temperamental producer Jon Peters played by Bradley Cooper and a troubled political candidate played by Benny Safdie. The musical stings from Bowie and McCartney are swoonworthy in themselves.

It’s a very Pynchonian affair in its way (appropriate, as Anderson has adapted Inherent Vice) and the surreal comic scrapes satirically co-exist with nastiness and grotesquerie: swipes of anti-Jewish and anti-Japanese racism. Gary himself is based on Tom Hanks’s producing partner Gary Goetzman – who really was a child actor and waterbed sales guy in his teens – and also based on a kid Anderson saw 20 years ago hitting on a young woman. But in a way, Gary floats free of these specific influences, he is just a creation of this fervently remembered or imagined Californian era, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s actor and stuntman in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Alana Haim herself is a triumph: a stylish, effortlessly charismatic figure (rather like Barbra Streisand in fact). This is movie hedonism, cine-sensuality. It is glorious.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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