Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, feels like Boogie Nights and moves like Inherent Vice. Tonally, it’s more buoyant and freewheeling than anything he’s made since Boogie; structurally, it shaggy dogs through loosely related vignettes à la Vice. These flavors complement each other better than licorice and pizza, though even that combination gets a bad rap—it can’t be worse than pineapple on pizza.

In some circles, the film has proven as unpopular as that cursed culinary concoction. There’s been a minor moral panic—a reaction not exclusive to conservatism—over the film’s central “romance” between a 25-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy. Their bond can hardly be described as a romance, as it’s for the most part platonic, but that hasn’t stopped a smattering of voices from declaring Licorice Pizza an endorsement of pedophilia. Such a read is patently ridiculous and indicative of a disease of media illiteracy. Art need not serve as a moral instruction booklet, which people seem to understand when the stakes are blown up to comical proportions: people will claim that Thanos, genocidal warlord, was a compelling villain because he “had a point”, yet they can’t be bothered to empathize with young adults who have complicated feelings across an age gap. The closer art gets to real life, the less nuance it’s allowed to have—a worrying and suggestive trend indeed.

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Unlucky for that crowd, Anderson’s work has a keen awareness of life’s lovely messiness. Licorice Pizza understands that age isn’t a marker of maturity. Alana Haim stars as Alana Kane, a young woman suffering from an acute case of arrested development. In her mid-twenties with no discernible direction, she gets by as an assistant for a local photography company, reliving high school pictures on the other side of the camera. It’s at school that she meets Gary Valentine, a precocious student who moonlights (and daylights) as an actor and businessman, both with a surprising amount of success. He crushes on Alana with boyish immediacy. Alana plays aloof at first, but she finds herself drawn to Gary’s confidence in making something specific out of himself.

Anderson is as inimitable a screenwriter as he is a director, largely because of his palpable care for his characters. Their flaws and idiosyncrasies—always evident but never typical—dance at the forefront of stories that reserve no judgment for them. In Licorice Pizza, Anderson finds lead performances that feel just as fondly for the characters. Alana Haim, best known as one of the sisters of pop/rock trio Haim, is so incredible here that her music could become her lesser-known career. Her performance is beautifully lived in. She experiences her character in the manner that Anderson relays the story: complex collisions of human peculiarities. At no point is her face overridden by a single emotion. Cooper Hoffman—son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a beloved collaborator of Anderson’s before his untimely passing—is just as convincing as Gary Valentine. His depiction of adolescent manhood, like his acne-tinged face, bears no signs of pleasant artificiality.

Stretched across a series of misadventures in the San Fernando Valley, Licorice Pizza is a canvas of details in the sprawl. The narrative is loosely held together by Alana and Gary’s joint business ventures: a waterbed company, some casting calls, a political campaign; whatever keeps the two’s worlds colliding. The logistics of these vocations are left mostly unexplained, imbuing the film with an “anything goes” mentality that enhances its wacky humor. This can become counterproductive and distract from the character work— “what could possibly happen next?” sometimes feel more pertinent than “who will Alana and Gary become?”—but Anderson’s attention to detail survives the ride. A moment of heavenly lighting basks Alana in the glory that Gary sees in her; a minor character’s plight encapsulates the theme of identity lost, found, and lost again. The film’s eyes are trained on inner lives, even when it appears to wander.

It could still do with a little more focus. The amount of trailer footage absent from the final cut suggests that Anderson killed some darlings, but he could stand to cull a few more. A less deliriously eventful movie would leave more space for the intricacies of its relationships. Again, Anderson strikes a good balance in that regard—some of the most eventful scenes are swelling with feeling—but there’s still room to tighten up. A couple scenes could be cut without losing anything, like the recurring encounters with a white restaurateur who speaks in an offensive Asian accent. The charitable read is that we’re supposed to laugh at the racist, but the scenes flit by without the requisite focus to deter those who’d find the accent funny. Finding comedic value in events with painful history requires more than an incidental touch.

Thankfully, Anderson’s second film with a female protagonist is genuinely considered when it comes to men writing women, even if the director dips into some pitfalls. The women of Phantom Thread and Licorice Pizza are well-developed to a point, but it’s hard to imagine who they’d be without the influence of a genius, charismatic man. It’s certainly easy to picture who Gary would be sans Alana. Anderson recognizes and interrogates the male imposition on women’s growth, but he doesn’t always realize how his films make the same impositions. His female protagonists aren’t fully built for first fiddle. But the magic of Licorice Pizza is in its unlikely connection, and in that realm it excels.

★★★★   (4/5)