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The Swinging ‘70s 

“Licorice Pizza” contains the tender, erotic unconventionality of “Harold and Maude” re-envisioned as a teen boy’s babysitter fantasy.

click to enlarge Musician Alana Haim stars with Cooper Hoffman, son of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza."

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Musician Alana Haim stars with Cooper Hoffman, son of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza."

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” has a lovely sense of swing and shagginess, suggesting the wandering spirit of other ‘70s-set movies such as Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” Both directors understand the American ‘70s on deeper terms than mere clothing décor and top singles, capturing a permissiveness that has long since evaporated from contemporary life -- for better and worse.

Parents are nowhere to be seen in “Licorice Pizza,” as children, many of whom are young actors in the San Fernando Valley, roam around unwatched, hatching schemes with people much older. Teenagers talk their ways into bars and clubs, eavesdropping on Hollywood’s sozzled fading lions. Imagine this sort of thing happening so unceremoniously in our self-conscious, cautious, helicopter-parenting present day.

The film is driven by an unusually nuanced sense of nostalgia. It longs for this sort of permissiveness while being acutely aware of the abuses of power that spring from it. Men of power sexually harass women throughout the film, and while Anderson is too hip to preach about it, he never fails to capture the pain, humiliation, or plain irritation of a pat on the butt. Or the way a restaurant owner trades up Japanese wives, to whom he condescends grotesquely, like one might used cars. And children are treated like adults, sure, which means they can be exploited for labor like adults, as in the cattle call before a TV show featuring a hilarious, profane Christine Ebersol as a Lucille Ball caricature.

The film’s sweet-and-sour tonality - a pervading characteristic of Anderson’s work - is encapsulated by its central narrative thread in which a 15-year-old actor, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, Philip Seymour’s son), engages in a potential romance with an adrift 20-something woman, Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the band Haim). Anderson, knowing he’s playing with dynamite in a modern culture that’s scandalized by everything, has soft-soaped the implications of this story in interviews, but make no mistake: these two fall in mutual love, and Anderson’s willingness to take this relationship on its own terms imbues the film with a hum of unresolved tension. Think the tenderness and erotic unconventionality of Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude,” if re-envisioned as a teen boy’s babysitter fantasy. And this tension is intensified, and mirrored, by various other anecdotes that pivot on appetites that are either voraciously satiated or suppressed.

Anderson’s biggest, most daring flourish is his ability to render this romance authentically human. Hoffman and Haim have a raw, singular chemistry, and one sees why their characters would be drawn together. Gary may be 15, but he’s a virtuoso in a nearly Orson Wellesian sense, hopscotching between businesses such as selling water beds and opening a pinball arcade, once the law against the machines is lifted. (School is never once mentioned, befitting the film’s aforementioned sense of lawlessness.) His relentless curiosity, direction and drive stand in stark contrast to Alana’s uncertainty and ennui.

In certain emotional fashions, Gary’s the best of all worlds for her: an intelligent, creative guy who’s too inexperienced to exploit her, though he’s beginning to wrestle with those temptations. One understands, implicitly, that his business drive represents a deep urge to have the power that’s warping other characters. In a marvelous scene, Gary nearly cops a feel while Alana sleeps; he resists, and we feel him winning, for the moment, the titanic fight not to join the league of pigs on the film’s periphery.

Those pigs are a vivid lot, from John Michael Higgins as said restaurant owner (of the real-life Mikado) to Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper as semi-fictionalized versions of the actor William Holden and the producer Jon Peters, respectively. Like his mentor Robert Altman, Anderson has an ability to reinvent actors on the fly, and Penn, in particular, hasn’t been this vital in ages, painting an indelible portrait of a boozed-up, slowed-down kind of death drive. Cooper, so dull in the upcoming “Nightmare Alley,” heads in the opposite direction of Penn, suggesting the horniest, most coked-up man on the planet—a parody of ‘70s hedonism that Anderson both critiques and enjoys.

Given its studied anecdotal quality, it would be tempting to view “Licorice Pizza” as a minor palette cleanser for Anderson after years of fashioning lacerating psychological epics like “There Will Be Blood, “The Master,” and “Phantom Thread.” But the lightness of “Licorice Pizza,” signified by its warm and beautiful cinematography and fleet tracking shots, is a poignant misdirection, reflecting the tunnel vision of the young protagonists. However, we’re allowed to see the pain and chaos that blasts in from the sidelines. The various Hollywood legends are nearly driven mad from the power we’re all conditioned to envy, while mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (filmmaker Benny Safdie) is crippled by the pressure to remain closeted. Gas shortages stifle the economy, physicalizing the film’s increasingly apocalyptic aura.

To utilize another Hal Ashby reference, Anderson has fashioned his own “Shampoo,” in which frivolous shenanigans are revealed to barely conceal a society in deep turmoil and decay. Gary and Alana embrace and run toward a future that can mean anything, their youth offering them the gift of fearlessness . . . and ignorance.

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