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Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” didn’t make my list of 2021’s best films, but it probably should have, because I’ve been thinking about what it all means since I saw it on Christmas Day at Cinemapolis.

“Licorice Pizza” is named for a chain of west coast record stores, and it’s based on the life of Gary Goetzman, a child actor who opened a waterbed store and added pinball machines, and wound up producing movies with Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Tom Hanks (“That Thing You Do!”).

Anderson was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, and his father Ernie was a legendary voice-over performer, hawking “The Love Boat” on ABC. So he’s grown up with a very particular view of show business and Hollywood history, and returns to his stomping grounds to use Goetzman’s life story as a way to paint a picture of what the entertainment business was like in 1973.

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a working kid actor, opens the movie by walking up to Alanna (Alanna Haim) and telling her that he wants to be her boyfriend. She mocks him and scoffs at him, but they keep talking. That simple structure — boy meets girl — makes the framework for a very episodic, meandering story that’s all about zigging and zagging. I think that the guy who made “Boogie Nights” (1997) wants to explore that almost outlaw quality to the ‘70s, and how politically incorrect everything was back then, perhaps best exemplified by John Michael Higgins in a running subplot as the owner of several Japanese restaurants.

The film feels realistically chaotic and sloppy, dangerous and hilarious. We’re here and then we’re over there. Much like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), all the kids in Gary’s orbit act like little adult businessmen. Drinking, smoking and drugs are part of the routine. The kids seem to go 24-7 after their goals, and at times they get into truly perilous situations.

Cooper and Haim are the perfect fresh-faced kids to anchor all this craziness. Even without make-up and wearing dorky fashions of the day, they have the charisma and chemistry that carries Anderson’s potent but at times unwieldly storytelling. It’s the kind of movie that makes room for outsized, theatrical performances from Sean Penn, playing a version of actor William Holden, Tom Waits as a boozy, chain-smoking director, Tim Conway Jr. and Maya Rudolph as casting directors, and Bradley Cooper in a bonkers bit as hairdresser and soon-to-be film producer Jon Peters.

(Also, look for John C. Reilly’s cameo as Fred Gwynne. I’m not kidding. Fred Gwynne.)

The period set design, costumes, props and atmosphere are as effective in their way as what Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” did, and “Licorice Pizza” boasts a kicking soundtrack that includes a Sonny and Cher track that I’d never heard, and David Bowie’s brilliant “Life on Mars?”

Maybe the reason I’ve been thinking about this movie since I saw it is because of something Roger Ebert once wrote, that if you go to the movies long enough, you will see yourself on the screen eventually. I was a little young for these ’73 shenanigans, but around 1977, I wanted to be an actor, too, and I was certainly having my own adventures running around Ithaca. (Remind me to tell you about “Youth On Stage” one day.) In a lot of ways, Gary Valentine’s life was also my life.

“Licorice Pizza” is airing at Cinemapolis through Jan. 20.

Recommended: “Nightmare Alley” at Cinemapolis

RIP: Betty White (“Ponyo,” “The Lorax,” “Lake Placid,” “Community”)

RIP: Peter Bogdanovich (“Targets,” “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?,” “Paper Moon,” “The Cat’s Meow”)

RIP Sidney Poitier (“No Way Out,” “To Sir With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Stir Crazy,” “Sneakers”)

RIP Lyricist Marilyn Bergman (“The Way We Were,” “Yentl”)

RIP Bob Saget (“Half Baked,” “The Aristocrats”)

 

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