Delicious slice of sweet and sour… this charming 1970s coming-of-age drama fizzes with mischief: BRIAN VINER reviews Licorice Pizza
Licorice Pizza (15, 133 mins)
Verdict: Gorgeously quirky romcom
The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (12A, 111 mins)
Verdict: Hate to be catty, but…
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, is the metaphorical shot in the arm we all need right now, to go with the real one.
It’s an irresistibly quirky romantic comedy, full of effervescent charm as well as some proper belly laughs. But it is also calculatedly brazen, as if Anderson is daring audiences to find offence where none is meant. I cherished every minute of it.
It’s a boy-meets-girl-at-high-school story set in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1973, which sounds like standard romcom fare. But part of the movie’s daring springs from the age gap, because only one of them is at school.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, is the metaphorical shot in the arm we all need right now, to go with the real one
That’s 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), who plays an experienced child actor with charisma and confidence well beyond his years, not to mention the entrepreneurial flair to set up a waterbed company he calls Soggy Bottom.
On the day pictures are taken for the school yearbook, Gary strikes up conversation with the photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and quickly falls for her, entirely undaunted by the fact that she is a good deal older (she’s 25).
Anderson is aware, of course, that Gary’s tender age could lead the film into uncomfortable territory, which is doubtless why the relationship stays largely chaste. Moreover, Alana is as sweetly naive as Gary is engagingly precocious, condensing the gap as they support each other through various adventures.
Really, the film tells two coming-of-age stories, his and hers, with narrative tangents every now and then, some of which are incorrigibly playful, others faintly menacing.
In an example of the former, John Michael Higgins plays a restaurateur with a Japanese wife, yielding some comedy straight out of the Benny Hill playbook which challenges modern sensibilities head-on.
You’ll either find it hilarious . . . or you won’t. Either way, this episodic storytelling is very deftly done, and for the most part fizzes with innocent fun.
In some ways the film reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time . . . In Hollywood — not so much because it’s lovingly set in the same area at around the same time; more in the way that real-life characters intrude on the fiction, notably Gary’s waterbed customer Jon Peters, the wildly volatile hairdresser boyfriend of Barbra Streisand, gleefully hammed up by Bradley Cooper.
With Sean Penn as an urbane but creepy movie star, Tom Waits as an elderly director and film-maker Benny Safdie as a rising politician whose election campaign Alana joins, Licorice Pizza does not want for famous names and familiar faces. But the really inspired casting choices are the two leads, both newcomers and both wonderful.
In truth, neither is exactly a stranger to stardom. Hoffman has the burly build and screen presence of his late father Philip Seymour Hoffman, who worked extensively with Anderson in films such as Boogie Nights and The Master, while his co-star is part of the rock band Haim, whose videos Anderson has directed.
It’s a boy-meets-girl-at-high-school story set in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1973, which sounds like standard romcom fare
Her two older sisters Este and Danielle, who are also in the band, play her sisters in the film, with their actual Israeli father playing their screen father. The result is a very funny, affectionately authentic depiction of a Jewish Friday-night dinner, at which the bickering is enveloped in warmth.
I loved Anderson’s last film, 2017’s Phantom Thread, and this one has the same meticulous period detail — only this time it’s personal.
The writer-director has mined memories of his own Valley childhood, and the film’s curious title is borrowed from a Southern Californian chain of 1970s record stores (Licorice Pizza, apparently, was a slang term for a vinyl LP).
Aptly, the soundtrack, featuring David Bowie, The Doors and Nina Simone, among many other great artists, is glorious. Every aspect of the film has been crafted with manifest devotion and a fair dollop of mischief. It’s a beguiling combination.
I wasn’t at all beguiled by The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, an overly whimsical, excessively mannered biopic of the Victorian artist who, by anthropomorphising cats in his drawings for the Illustrated London News, popularised the idea of keeping them as pets rather than simply to suppress mice.
I wasn’t at all beguiled by The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain – I wouldn’t want to drink a whole bottle of advocaat and I wouldn’t want to sit through this film again
With an unseen Olivia Colman providing twee narration, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain with the same repertoire of tics he used in the TV drama Sherlock, here signifying that his character’s genius is indivisible from mental fragility.
Claire Foy plays Emily, the governess to his brood of younger sisters, with whom he falls in love and, in an affront to the social order, marries.
Their relationship is at the heart of all that is best about Will Sharpe’s film, and a fine supporting cast is led by Toby Jones as Wain’s editor.
But in keeping with the illustrations themselves, there is an intensely sweet gloopiness about the whole exercise that feels too heavy-handed even for the festive season. I wouldn’t want to drink a whole bottle of advocaat and I wouldn’t want to sit through this film again.
Still, who knows, eight out of ten cat owners might adore it.
Happy New Year!
My Top Ten films of this year
1 The Dig: What a treat this was, Simon Stone’s gorgeous account (starring a superb Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, right) of how Anglo-Saxon treasure was unearthed at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk just before World War II. A charmer.
2 Mothering Sunday: I loved this adaptation of the Graham Swift novel, also set between the wars, about forbidden love across the class divide. Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young are engaging leads, with Olivia Colman and Colin Firth offering proper dramatic heft in support.
3 The Father: Anthony Hopkins (below) won a second Best Actor Oscar for his tour de force as an old man with dementia in Florian Zeller’s clever screen version of his own stage hit. Again, Olivia Colman gives sterling support.
4 The Lost Daughter: Here she is yet again, the ubiquitous Olivia, but this time in the lead as a middle-aged academic still racked with guilt for her failings as a young mother. A fantastic directorial debut for Maggie Gyllenhaal.
5 Last Night In Soho: Not everyone loved this like I did, but Edgar Wright’s psychological horror film, flitting between London now and in the 1960s, gripped me from start very nearly to overwrought finish. A worthy swansong for the great Diana Rigg.
6 West Side Story: Eyebrows danced in surprise when word got out that Steven Spielberg was planning a ‘reimagining’ of the smash-hit 1961 musical. But if anyone could pull it off, Spielberg could — and sure enough, he does.
7 Summer of Soul: We all know about Woodstock. But this wonderful documentary brings to captivating life a little-remembered festival in Harlem that same summer, with Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone at their breathtaking best.
8 The White Tiger: Aravind Adiga’s darkly comic Booker Prize-winning novel about class, servitude, corruption and ambition in modern India is wonderfully adapted by Ramin Bahrani.
9 Nomadland: At this year’s Oscars, Chloe Zhao bagged the win double of Best Picture and Best Director (with a Best Actress statuette for Frances McDormand) for her moving drama about communities of modern-day nomads in America. Slow, but exquisitely done.
10 The Mitchells vs The Machines: This animation about a dysfunctional family saving the planet from robots is a real hoot.